" /> Daily Blague: July 2006 Archives

« June 2006 | Main | August 2006 »

July 31, 2006

"Why I blog"

Take a few minutes to listen to the apologia that Cipriano, the Canadian author of Bookpuddle, has recorded to celebrate his first anniversary as a blogger. He's quite right about one thing: because blogging and reading blogs are purely voluntary, everyone involved is predisposed to think the best of everyone else. Amazingly - in my concededly limited experience - this good feeling carries over into personal encounters. Never before has it been possible to meet people on the basis of shared sensibility. (Thanks to Patricia Storms at Booklust.)

Kenji Yoshino's Covering

I picked up Kenji Yoshino's Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights when it came out, but I was very slow to get round to reading it, and did so finally because Ms NOLA had read it and liked it very much. I knew I was going to like it - and that was just the trouble. I thought I knew the book's contents, on the basis of an article in the Times Magazine and an interview with Leonard Lopate. Don't scoff - all too often, writers spill all the good beans that way, and there's nothing to discover in their books. But Mr Yoshino hasn't fallen into that trap. The last part of Covering is devoted to a magnificent concept, a real tool for getting from here to there. I couldn't believe it: a critic who delivers a solution! But first, a word about covering.

Everyone covers. To cover is to tone down a disfavored identity to fit into the mainstream. In our increasingly diverse society, all of us are outside the mainstream in some way. Nonetheless, being deemed mainstream is still often a necessity of social life. For this reason, every reader of this book has covered, whether consciously or not, and sometimes at significant personal cost.

That's how Covering begins, with a challenge to the reader to acknowledge the ubiquity and the inescapability of covering. Socialization requires it. We must learn to control our tempers in public - if we have them. We learn not to steal things that we want. Society requires a certain minimum of covering of each of us, and since we're taught to believe that we're better off for the habits that cover our antisocial urges so well that we hardly know they're there, we don't think of personal sacrifice. The covering that interests Mr Yoshino could be thought of as "optional" covering. Failing or refusing to cover won't land you in jail. If you're willing to forego the benefits that require covering, you're free to do so. But there is something vaguely theoretical about this freedom, because exercising it can be very lonely, and few people have the resources to live truly solitary lives. So we refrain from singing at our supper.

Everyone covers everywhere on earth, but the United States is a unique arena...

Continue reading about Covering at Portico.

July 30, 2006


Being a little behind the Times, I didn't come across Stephanie Rosenbloom's story, "Spouse Courtesy of Mom the Matchmaker," until this morning. I still can't believe that Ms Rosenbloom wrote this story for The Onion but then decided to try it on a Times editor.

Where parents were once feared and distant figures, today they are more like friends to their children, some people who work with families said, and that has led to more open relationships.

I can't tell you how unhealthy this sounds to me. How long-term dangerous.

It reminds me of my mother's hope that I would marry a tall woman, because, at five-eight herself, she believed that it was the obligation of tall men to take care of tall women. (And when my parents-in-law met me, they said to Kathleen, "But he's so tall." Kathleen is a hair, and no more than a hair, over five-one.) My mother used to say, in all innocence, "You ought to go out and find yourself a nice tall queen."

Oh, it was wrong in so many ways.

Now, if it were grandparents who were doing the matchmaking, that I could see.

July 29, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

Little Miss Sunshine is the second film that I've seen this year in which middle class struggles and aspirations are satirized - but satirized almost lovingly. "Look what jerks we are," these films say - the other, of course, is American Dreamz - "and it's very funny, but do you think we could do a little better?" Little Miss Sunshine, furthermore, rather stubbornly refuses to solve most of the problems that come up in the course of the movie, suggesting an alternative to the American dream that life is a mess that can be cleaned up. For these reasons, I don't expect it to be the big hit that critics would like it to be.

The amazing thing about the movie is how quickly and surely it establishes the mood of tract-house dinge. When Dwayne (Paul Dano) hands a note to his uncle (Steve Carrell), "Welcome to hell" (Dwayne has given up speaking for the time being), the audience is on the welcoming committee. The preceding family dinner - a homemade salad with takeout fried chicken and corn, Sprite, and frozen pops - has been so exquisitely choreographed that you know what this particular hell is all about: stressed disorder. The Hoover family gets by on sheer inertia.

The immediate cause of the family's dysfunction is Richard (Greg Kinnear), a would-be motivational speaker with hopes for a book deal that you know are doomed from the despair with which he addresses his cell phone. Richard believes in nine steps to winning, and is almost monstrously upbeat. He talks to his wife, Sheryl (Toni Colette), and children, Dwayne and Olive (Abigail Breslin), as if they were clients, but he speaks his cant in the tones of a discouraging scold. Sheryl seems a good sort, overworked at whatever she does (I was never clear on this) and squeezed by her housewifely duties. Richard's father (Alan Arkin) lives with the Hoovers - because he's been thrown out of his retirement home, for snorting heroin among other things. (It's a habit that he hasn't kicked.) When the story begins, Sheryl is saddled with responsibility for her brother, a gay professor, once the leading American Proust scholar, whose life self-destructed when a grad student with whom he fell in love fell in love with the second-best Proust scholar. All the performances are top-notch, but I have to single out Mr Carrell for a truly extraordinary job. He smolders with repressed fury - actually, "smoldering" suggests some sort of movement, but Mr Carrell is as still as a statue - but never leaves comedy territory. He is the tacit conscience of Little Miss Sunshine. As the minor disasters pile up around him, you can feel his incredulity. How on earth did we make this mess?

The story-line is simplicity itself. When they learn that Olive has become, by default, a contestant in a juvenile beauty pageant, the Hoovers decide to take a family drive, from their home in Albuquerque to Redondo Beach in California, in a Volkswagen bus. The bus looks fairly recent, but it's yet another determining signal to the audience: there will be a need for repairs. Most of the movie is devoted to the drive up Calvary. But the last twenty minutes or so, set at the beauty pageant - you can't believe that the Hoovers made it - are thoroughly redemptive. The other contestants are ghastly little jezebels who flaunt a veiled but wholly inappropriate sexuality. Olive's act, which perhaps her parents were unwise to let her learn from and work on with her grandfather, speaks truth to decadence. It is very exhilarating for a minute or two, and then it is mortifying, absolutely mortifying. (I was embarrassed for the actors, whom I imagined asking themselves how they'd ever been witless enough to sign on for the project.) The directors have a perfect little ending in store, however, and the movie definitely ends "too soon." You want a little more, if only of Steve Carrell.

Three other performances must be hailed: Beth Grant as the harridan pageant director (the sort of role that she's all too good in), Robert O'Connor as the scary pageant MC (he made me feel that I was in one of those fiercely grinning horror movies), and Paula Newsome as a bereavement counselor (don't ask). Now that I look more closely, I can say that Mary Lynn Rajskub, who was so good in Firewall, is very good in a tiny part.

Little Miss Sunshine is an elegant movie about extremes of inelegance. I hope you won't miss it.

July 28, 2006

Plagiarism in the Age of Google

An especially bad idea.

Of course, I won't regard myself as a success as a writer until I've been notified that a student, half-witted by laziness or ambition, has lifted one of my pages.  

At the Post Office


It's Friday morning, and I'm elated. Why? Because I went to the Post Office. I lugged three boxes to the Post Office and got rid of them. That's perhaps not the nicest way to speak of books and tapes that I hope that the recipients will be glad to have. But it certainly describes my relief. For weeks - months - I've been haunted by a self-imposed project that at times seemed quite daft.

At the beginning of May, a young man from Manila posted a comment at the DB. I replied by email, and we struck up a very agreeable correspondence. Early on, it occurred to me that the most satisfying way of downsizing my library would be to send things that I probably wouldn't be re-reading to Migs. Books in English are very expensive in his part of the world, as I learned when I visited Swindon's, the bookstore in Kowloon that sells them. There isn't much of a market for English literature in English, obviously, and books are heavy. Ergo: Migs scouts the used-book stores.

Easier was definitely said than done. I hate the Post Office. The only way to describe our branch is "Stalinesque." So I won't describe it. A bigger snag was my neurotic conviction that I must coordinate the shipment of books with the cataloguing of my library. My procrastinations will be much too familiar, and far too boring, to write about. Suffice it to say that last night, in a sort of positive hissy fit, I assembled seventeen books - they just fit in the box that I'd commandeered - swiped their barcodes so as to enter them into my library, shelf location "Manila," at the very moment of their departure from it, and sealed the box with stout tape. It was only then that I realized that I didn't have Migs's address. A note dashed off to him brought a swift reply.

I had two other boxes to send. One was the return of a cookbook; I'd been sent a form to paste onto the box for hassle-free mailing. The other was the boxed set of Mapp and Lucia II, on VHS. I'd replaced this with DVDs, for storage purposes - the DVDs will go straight into an album, alongside the two discs of the first series. I'd have put the tapes out on the windowsill by the elevators - a custom I began years ago for recycling books that has taken on a life of its own - if a reader of this blog hadn't written to me privately to say that, unaware of a second series, she would have to search for it at her public library. Heavens, I wrote back, let me send them to you instead! I suppose it's narcissistic, but I am always much happier to give things away when I know where they're going. (Or at least, where they're going next.)

The Manila box (shades of the Manila galleon) weighed sixteen pounds and five ounces - a big baby indeed! - and it cost seventeen something to ship, a little over a dollar a pound. I was amazed. Another test of my eager generosity was finding out just how expensive it was going to be to play Lord Bountiful. To send a very heavy box of books around the world - what would we be talking? Forty dollars? Sixty? More??? I resolved to see this first shipment through at any cost, and then to tell my new friend that further shipments would be just too expensive. But $17.85 was an outrageous bargain. I had to fill out a customs slip (hadn't thought of that), and I was careful to bring a few more of the forms home with me. There will be further shipments.

I must have mailed something abroad in the past, but I don't recall ever filling out a customs slip. It's a simple matter where books are concerned, because books, Lord love 'em, are duty-free, as well they should be. But what caught my attention was the gigantic rough but clear plastic bag that the box was dumped into. The postage was attached to a large address label, which I also had to fill out, that was tied around the neck of the bag. I don't understand the bag at all. Surely the box will go to the Philippines on a container ship; all that plastic will bunch up inefficiently and be difficult to pack. But without the bag, where will the label (and the postage) go? We can only wait six weeks (months) for Migs's report.

Pound for pound, I paid less on shipping to Manila than on the postage to Pittsburgh!

And then I bought a lot of stamps - more, perhaps, than I'll be able to use before the next hike. The Super Heroes above, however, may get framed.

Mrs Astor - in the news, alas.

Oh, families! What trouble they can raise. But it's nothing next to the trouble that can brew in families with servants. Lots of servants.

Brooke Astor, at 104, appears to have slipped into a "vegetative state." She has not been out of her Park Avenue apartment (except to go to the hospital) for some time. (Sunny von Bulow hasn't been outdoors in a while, either, but then she's only 73.) When Mrs Astor stopped showing up in the Times's Sunday benefit-party review - the closest thing that we have to "society pages" these days - I was sure that the next thing I would read about her would be her obituary. But I was wrong. I am certain that the lady herself would be deeply upset about my being wrong.

In her heyday, Mrs Astor was the grandest of dames, giving away millions, notably to the New York Public Library, and really checking up on the organizations she benefited. She seemed to be an indefatigable party-goer. She had great taste and she even wrote a little. I don't know anything about her but what I read in the paper, and she may be a dreadful person in fact, but I rather doubt that. Nor do I mean to make her out to be a saint. But there is always a need for true grandes dames. The example that Mrs Astor set was just about impeccable.

Having her name in the papers because - horrors! - her grandson filed papers to have her son removed as her guardian, on the grounds that he's neglecting her... Well, I hope that she really is in a vegetative state, because reading about it (or hearing about it from friends) would be a lousy way to die.

For the life of me, I can't see how any judge or panel or even God Almighty could get to the bottom of Philip Marshall's suit. When old people lose their capacities, those who love them are pulled into a vacuum, as each tries to do the victim's thinking. Not surprisingly, inquiring minds differ. Servants as well as family members have their opinions form their allegiances, usually against whoever has assumed their employer's authority, and - there goes the evidence! Who can be "objective" in such circumstances? (And yet who can resist the assurance of being exactly that?) It must be awfully sad to witness Mrs Astor's decline, and unless human nature has changed since I got back from the movies we can be sure that some of her friends are in denial. She'd be better, they think, if she were being better-treated. When a lady of great taste and independence stumbles - but doesn't die - there's bound to be something of a situation. Especially, as in this case, where the guardian is 82!

Now, I guess we just wait for Dominick Dunne to show up.

July 27, 2006

Great Coverage

What a pleasant surprise, to turn the page of the Times and find a super write-up, by Steve Smith, of Thomas Meglioranza's Monday night recital at Pace. With a picture!

A free concert on a Monday evening, an auditorium off the beaten path — it was a perfect opportunity for the bright young baritone Thomas Meglioranza to shake off the conventional solemnity of the lieder recital, and simply indulge in a few of his favorites from the repertory he has performed with the pianist Reiko Uchida during the last few years.

Sitting in the audience during the performance, I simply enjoyed Tom's beautiful singing. I didn't think much about the recital until yesterday, when it occurred me that Tom is reinventing the art-song recital. Not content to show off a great gift, he has put a lot of thought into constructing programs that I must regretfully - being a pious devotee of classical music - call "entertaining." Serious singers are not supposed to be entertainers. I can think of a few musicians whom I would dismiss as entertainers - mere entertainers. With Tom, it's just the opposite: he makes serious music entertaining on its own ground.

But don't take my word for it. Scroll down through Tom's schedule - he'll be touring with Marlboro musicians in the Midwest, with two recitals in California, in the fall.

July 26, 2006

In the Book Review

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review.

The other day, I learned that a gent by the name of Levi Asher, writing in Brooklyn, gives the New York Times Book Review a weekly once-over. Having just discovered me, he writes in his current entry that the Daily Blague is "the latest member of the hit squad." I can't wait to learn more!


The ratio of fiction to nonfiction is closer to balance than I can recall its having been, at least in a normal, non-themed issue. Even more interesting is the fact that Liesl Schillinger reviews two novels by the same writer, Will Clarke. I'm not sure that I've got this straight, but it appears that Mr Clarke self-published Lord Vishnu's Love Handles: A Spy Novel (Sort Of) and The Worthy: A Ghost's Story "and waited for Paramount, Simon & Schuster and Columbia Pictures to find him." Sure enough, there's an IMDb listing for The Worthy. These novels, in short, have been out for a bit; now that they're "officially" published, the Book Review can take notice. Ms Schillinger is enthusiastic about both books, although she devotes only two paragraphs to The Worthy, for the most part gamely summarizing the bizarre plots. I'd have liked a bit more in the writing-sample department, because I can tell from the review's report of Mr Clarke's material that whether I'd find his fiction delightful or insufferable would depend entirely on the music of his prose.

There are two books about ethnic teens in European capitals. The first is Londonstani, by Gautam Malkani. Sophie Harrison's largely favorable review focuses on the language of this fictional report on the lives of affluent desis (South Asian young men) living in Hounslow. She notes the book's predictable flaws - "It's shallow about girls" - but suggests that they are not fatal. Lucinda Rosenfeld is similarly sympathetic to Faîza Guène's Kiffe Kiffe Tomorrow (translated by Sarah Adams). Here the "sourpuss narrator" is a fifteen year-old girl of Moroccan background living in the banlieues of Paris. Both reviewers left me with the impression that these books are interesting (or interesting to middle-aged readers, anyway) primarily because they open windows on the exotic.

Sharing a page are Chelsea Cain's review of Mark Childress's One Mississippi and Daniel Asa Rose's review of Killer Instinct, by Joseph Finder. Ms Cain chastises Mr Childress for shifting from coming-of-age mode into something decidedly more surreal too "far into the game." Mr Rose describes reading Killer Instinct as a guilty pleasure, noting the book's "breathtaking predictability" and its "cookie-cutter characters."

But did he have to include a perfectly gratuitous dig at a couple of fine literary journals, by making the book's most boorish character start out as "a poor starving writer" who published stories "in magazines with names like TriQuarterly and Ploughshares"? Did it never occur to him that these writers he's taking a swipe at, by any measure, are his literary betters?

A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Old Filth, by Jane Gardam, and almost bought it. Paul Gray's review made me with that I had. Mr Gray writes,

Yet the miracle of Old Filth is that its hero eludes sociological or psychological pigeonholing. If he is a characteristic Raj orphan, he is also triumphantly his own man, with a life full of unexpected turns and events of high comedy to offset and compensate for his unpromising beginnings.

Mr Gray notes that this author of twelve novels may finally attain an American audience, on the strength not only of its contents but of its soft binding.


The cover story this week bears some nasty photographs, accompanying David Margolick's review of Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz. An Essay in Historical Interpretation, by Jan T Gross. Mr Margolick spends most of his time retailing horror stories that fill one with a dull ache of déja vu. Only near the end does he engage Professor Gross's theory, which is that Polish anti-Semitism was caused simply by guilt: "so implicated were they in the Jewish tragedy, aiding and abetting and expropriating, that the mere sight of those wraiths returning from the camps or exile or hiding, people who knew the Poles' dirty secrets and held title to their property, was too much to bear." Mr Margolick will have none of this. Referring to Yitzhak Shamir's comment that Poles sucked in anti-Semitism with their mother's milk, he writes,

A more likely, if less politically palatable explanation, is that through their own state-of-the-art anti-Semitism, the Germans emboldened many Poles to act upon what they had always felt. The comment from Shamir, a Polish Jew himself, may strike us as deeply offensive, simplistic, racist. But whatever ross may believe, he buttresses Shamir more than he discredits him.

Fear may be a shocking book, but if any of this week's books is going to cause an uproar, it's sure to be $40 Million Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete, by William C Rhoden. According to Warren Goldstein's review, Mr Rhoden assesses the very negative impact that the desegregation of American sports had on almost all blacks connected with the games - coaches, doctors, accountants - except for the players, who in turn suffer a familiar, dehumanizing fate.

To Rhoden, this tale bursts with significance, illustrating, in turn: white people's denial of black business ability while they continue to profit from black athletic skill; black athletes' training in high school, college and the pros (what he calls the "Conveyor Belt") to think only about individual success, never about a system that distributes power unequally; and how even today, professional basketball - controlled by whites, dependent on blacks (for the present) - resembles a plantation, albeit one on which the "slaves" earn millions, as long as they don't notice who's running the show.

Very strong stuff!

Read this book, and the next time you hear Barry Bonds booed or think about Commissioner Bud Selig's steroids "investigation" or talk about the NBA's "image problem," you may squirm more than a little. Good.

Good, indeed!

Pankaj Mishra, an Indian man of letters - one must dust off the old title for a young man so fluent in fiction and in sociopolitical analysis as well - paints an impassioned portrait of today's India, a country more than ever feeling tensions between old and new ways, and for the first time abiding a middle class hundreds of millions large. In Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond, Mr Mishra combines every sort of nonfiction writing, as Donald MacIntyre reports.

Certainly his book offers none of the prescriptions and bromides of a "how to" manual. Part autobiography, part travelogue, it is written not from a political or polemical position but from that of a small-town, upper-caste, lower-middle-class Indian with a taste for Western literature.

Mr MacIntyre seems to change his mind later in the review, when he points out that Mr Mishra's book has outraged many of his countrymen, precisely for being critical. Indeed, reading between the lines, I gathered that we might find in these pages a pulsing portrait of what the Western bourgeoisie might have looked like two centuries ago, when it was brash and bloating, and before it had learned polite manners. I should think that a perfectly neutral reader would find Mr MacIntyre's review to be sympathetic to the author and helpful to himself; I myself have already signed on as an admirer of Mr Mishra.

On facing pages, we have three books about Topic A, which used to be sex but is now "What's wrong with this country?" Meaning the United States. Bryan Burrough is not terribly impressed by Ron Susskind's The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America's Pursuit of Its Enemies since 9/11, but he allows, at the end, that it's "an easy and worthwhile summer read." His principal complaint is that Mr Susskind's primary source, George Tenet, is never identified as such. I'm not sure what the point of such books is supposed to be, since it's pretty clear that not much of importance is taking place in the form of White House briefings. That's a shadow game; the real work of today's federal government is to sign contracts with big manufacturers of dangerous stuff. The One Percent Solution suggests that noncommercial policy inspires the Men at the Top. How they must be chuckling! Mr Burrough, who compares Mr Susskind as "flank steak to [Bob] Woodward's sirloin," seems to be equally taken in.

Tobin Harshaw reviews two books stuffed with recommendations for those who would replace the dank view of things shared by those currently in power with something more progressive. As usual - Stanley Fish did the same thing last week - the review finds the proffered solutions disappointing. The books are Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government - and How We Take It Back, by David Sirota, and Whose Freedom?: The Battle Over America's Most Important Idea, by George Lakoff, and Mr Harshaw shows what he thinks of both in a neat dismissal:

While Sirota apparently never met an editor, Lakoff seems never to have met an actual conservative.

This, written by an editor with the Times's Op-Ed page, is very distressing; surely someone else ought to have reviewed these not-insignificant books. Mr Harshaw reveals a bit of professional deformation: "Perhaps it's unavoidable when a blogger tries to write at length, but the verbal mannerisms that may seem like an invigorating shot of espresso on a brief daily basis become a bathtub of stale Nescafé when stretched out to more than 300 pages."

Keith Gessen's review of Dorothy Gallagher's Strangers in the House: Life Stories completely baffles me, because, although it appears to be favorable, it never provides a good reason for reading the book. On the contrary, it makes Ms Gallagher out to be an unpleasant, self-absorbed whiner. Is this supposed to be appealing? I was vaguely impatient with the Review's editors for wasting space, not only on Strangers in the House but on Mr Gessen as well. What is one to make of this wobbly observation:

What memoirs can do, at their best, is inhabit effortlessly (because real people actually do) the most intense contradictions of a historical moment.

Bruce Handy's inflated review of Catch A Wave: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, by Peter Ames Carlin, makes more sense than the preceding, but it fails to do the one thing that it ought to do, which is to compare Mr Carlin's book with existing titles on the subject. Instead of which, Mr Handy burps up a lot of gas about the myths of rock 'n' roll. Do I have to be Hilton Kramer to ask what a book about the Beach Boys is doing in the Book Review?

Henry Alford's Essay, "Chamber Plots," is about the taxonomy of bathroom libraries, and it's very funny. Here's how it ends:

The bathroom of two publishing insiders who wish to remain anonymous could be called "Shrine It Up," since all 46 of its books were written by people the couple know, including Tom Wolfe. "It's adoration. It's full worship," the wife told me. The husband clarified: "It's their out-to-pasture place. Their spines won't be cracked open again. At this, I smiled bleakly. It seemed that one of my own books was in the collection.

Visiting Firemen


Last night, having had a lot of fun (and a lot to drink), but finding myself home alone at a reasonable hour, I quite predictably went into cutup mode - and put my foot in it. I wrote the following entry.

I don't get many nights out on the town, due to my police record, but imagine my thrill at being asked to spend a night on the town with the fire chief of Itchboro, New Jersey. I was so happy to be photographed with someone important that I actually showed my teeth - something I never do - while the fire chief, notwithstanding mufti, managed to looked very official.

If only more denizens of the suburbs knew how we Gothamites longed to be photographed with them - I'd smile so much more often.

("Itchboro" came to me much later. I initially wrote "Bogota," which is a real town that, it dawned on me eventually, might have a real fire chief. It never occurred to me that Joe would mind being likened to a fire chief. But I can see why he might mind the "Itchboro" part. Hence this late-in-the-day repair.)

Anyway, here's what happened. Aaron, Joe and I had just walked out of Grand Central, where we'd had drinks. Aaron, claiming that it was a school night (which it was), was going to head home. Joe and I were going to cross 42nd Street, to have dinner at Pershing Square. Who should be standing right in our path but Sean Maloney, a candidate for New York State Attorney General. Joe ran up to introduce himself. Reading his mind, I pulled my camera out of the bag I was carrying it and, because of my slight palsy, which makes flash photography very difficult, handed it to Aaron. "Take a picture!"

But Joe had his back to us, and Aaron seemed unsure about the propriety of taking an unposed shot. Within several blinks of an eye, Joe and I were lined up for the photo above, which Aaron was happy to take. I can't say why Joe looks so serious, but I suspect that it's because he was wishing that I - or at any rate the other person in the picture - were Sean Maloney.

Then Joe went back to Mr Maloney, who was happy to have his picture taken with the man behind Joe.My.God. As well he should be!

July 25, 2006


As a frequent visitor at Wikipedia.com, I was quick to read Stacy Schiff's "Know It All," in the current New Yorker. Not surprisingly, the crux of the story is the tension between users' desire for a reliable product and contributors' insistence upon equal standing. Vandalism and pranksters aside, Wikipedia confronts very thorny problems of accuracy. "Was Copernicus Polish, German, or Prussian?" Ms Schiff reports that

Even Eric Raymond, the open-source pioneer whose work inspired [Wikipedia founder Jimmy] Wales, argues that "'disaster'" is not too strong a word" for Wikipedia.

Kathleen is of much the same view. But when I rely on Wikipedia, I'm rarely placing very much weight on what I find. I'll be checking a birth date, or the BWV number of a Bach composition. In many cases, I'm looking for things that I could find somewhere in this room, if I were willing to get off my seat. When I come across something really new and interesting, something about which I knew little or nothing before finding out about it at Wikipedia, I seek out a second source before getting carried. away.

I have never edited a page of the encyclopedia, even when I've come across small, obviously typographical, errors. This is partly because I don't want to take the time to learn how to do it (even if it takes "no time at all"), but more because I'm afraid that I'll come back to a page and not recognize the work as my own. I've had this very unnerving experience several times on the Internet, reading an interesting quotation and really agreeing with it - wondering why I didn't say that - only to find that it was indeed I who said that. The experience leaves an agreeable afterglow, certainly, but it is creepy at first. I have a nightmare from time to time, which always ends with the realization that I am writing the text that I'm reading. I wake up shuddering, as the ink on the dreamed-of page fades to invisibility. That's what consulting myself in a reference work would be like.

For the time being, I can say that I've never encountered anything at the online encyclopedia that roused my suspicions. Given the sober subjects that I'm usually exploring, this is not surprising. I'll continue to trust my instincts when it comes to judging Wikipedia entries. Which is by way of counseling you, the gentle reader, not to put too much weight on what you may learn here!

Down by the Brooklyn Bridge

An interesting evening had I, one that unfolded on several dimensions. First, there was the simplicity of meeting up with Ms NOLA at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square and heading down to Pace University, by the Brooklyn Bridge, in search of the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts. It wasn't too hard to find, although the gent who was sitting on a planter out in front of Pace whom we asked could only tell us that we were the second people to ask him. We were on our way to Tom Meglioranza's River to River Festival recital. Tickets were free, and I'd reserved a pair as soon as I'd found out about the event.

I will save my remarks about the recital for tomorrow; they're not quite ripe. I do want to say, though, how astonished I was by Tom's encore, that old sappy standard, never sung by a pop singer ever, "I Love You Truly." Alfalfa sang it in Our Gang. My mother took it to be a token of everything Victorian that she rejected in her personal life. (This would have been in the Fifties. Ten years later, and the Victorians didn't look so bad to her.) If there is a song that stands for the America that the postwar United States threw out with the bathwater, it is the one Tom sang. And not only did he sing it, but he sang it for his mother. There were gasps here and there in the audience when the piano preliminaries began, but most of the audience had never heard the song before. Needless to say, Tom made "I Love You Truly" sound like an art song. By which I mean only that he made it sound worth listening to.

Tom's recitals usually last about ninety minutes, and at nine o'clock we were out on the street, thinking about dinner. There had been discussions about this beforehand, involving Les Halles, the downtown branch, in John Street, of Anthony Bourdain's flagship. It seemed too good to be true, but Kathleen tore herself away from her indentures and joined us. M le Neveu had already had dinner by the time he was invited, and a good thing, too, because he would have eaten the paper tabletop in the time that it took for dinner to be served. Let's just say that, while the food at Les Halles gets an A-plus for great bistro cuisine, our service was just about the worst that I have ever had in any New York restaurant. Eventually, someone senior intervened - someone to whom I had asserted that if our entrees weren't on the table within five minutes we'd be paying for our drinks and leaving. This is the sort of ultimatimation that I really don't go in for. I am usually all too content to go on drinking cocktails while dinner takes forever. But the cocktails had taken forever, and, when they came, they were naked.

That's right: a martini with no olive and a gin-and-tonic without a lime. We were truly, deeply shocked. The fruit was readily supplied, but zut alors! (As an American francophile/phone, I feel that it is my duty to preserve certain beloved expressions that have passed entirely out of use in France. I don't think that I have ever heard a native speaker use the phrase "zut alors," and in fact I have no idea how it really sounds - or sounded. But really, if you had had to endure the service at Les Halles, there's no telling what you wouldn't have said!) Dinner took well over an hour to arrive, although it certainly came less than five minutes after my threat. Kathleen was sure that it was all her fault: she'd told us what to order over the phone, from the Internet, while she was still at the office, a few blocks away. If we'd all been there from the start, she thought, our food would have arrived much sooner. This argument, of course, makes no sense, which is why it's probably correct.

Oh, and, by the way, this is the thousandth entry at the Daily Blague. Not even two years old - nowhere close.

July 24, 2006

Through a Glass, Darkly

Fans of Donna Leon will not be disappointed by her latest Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery, Through a Glass, Darkly - the fifteenth in the series. Paola Brunetti is still reading English literature, cooking boffo meals, and sparring lovingly with her husband. Signorina Elettra is still producing slim dossiers of useful information into the provenance of which the Commissario is far too wise to inquire. It's time to spread out the map of Venice (or Venedig, as my Hallwag City Map map puts it) and follow Brunetti from the Questura, in the Campo San Lorenzo, to Murano, where there's trouble in one of the vetrerie.

It's also an occasion for watching a very gifted writer give distinctive shape ...

Continue reading about Donna Leon and Commissario Brunetti at Portico.

July 23, 2006

At Eli's

"Will you kill me, if I go to 5:30 Mass instead of 12:30?"

I put down Three Junes with a sigh. I ought not to be reading Three Junes; I ought to be reading The Economist and the Times. But I'm totally absorbed by the story of Fenno McLeod, and transported back to the days when nobody remained merely HIV-positive indefinitely. "Yes, I will kill you," I say. "At 5:30, you'll postpone to 7:15, and at 7:15 you won't go at all, and I'll be a wreck from wondering when to get dinner on."

"All right," Kathleen retorts, with mock petulance, as she gets up from the dining table, which is completely covered with trays, bottles, and boxes of beads. In a benign sort of way, Kathleen is addicted to beading: once she begins, she can't stop. She'll stay up until all hours to finish a piece, only to be thwarted by some concluding knot that she's much too tired to be attempting.

Wondering where we will eat dinner, given the occupation of the table by semiprecious materials, I accompany Kathleen downstairs and as far as Third Avenue. I know what we are going to have for dinner, and I am on my way to Eli's to pick up a few ingredients: I can't always find gingerroot up here. (That will probably change when Whole Foods opens up a local branch, in a building yet to be erected, on a site yet to be cleared, at the very corner at which Kathleen and I have just parted company.)

Eli's is a sprawling market - in a basement. The building used to be a storage warehouse. (A big art heist took place there some time ago.) The building, on the northeast corner of Third Avenue and 80th Street, was stripped to the beams and refitted as a luxury condo. Eli's occupation of the ground floor is challenging: three spaces that do not communicate. You enter what seems to be a modest flower shop by a door near the corner, cross a tiled floor and board a downward escalator. It is a two-storey drop, or feels like one, anyway. Keep yours eyes left if this is your first visit; the aerial view of the premises will come in handy. At the bottom of the escalator, you grab a caddy or a shopping cart, and make your way through produce. The produce at Eli's is always gorgeous, and so artfully arranged that it seems to have come from very special, possibly metaphysical acreage. It takes at least five trips to develop any restraint in the produce department.

Then you wend your way past the tomatoes, along the wall of refrigerated items - such as the gazpacho that I picked up for Kathleen's lunch (I was in the mood for hot dogs). Confronted by a cornucopia of cheeses, you are now in the pinball area of the store, where you must navigate between round tables and shelves through spaces not quite large enough for two carts. Meat and fish are the the right, while the eternity of cheese continues along the left. A display case of salamis, bacons, and other cured products neatly hides the escalator that will take you back upstairs when you have done all your downstairs shopping. I was accosted, near the tomatoes, by a somewhat befuddled elderly lady who wanted to know where the exit was. I would point toward the escalator, but without the benefit of my height she could see nothing but round tables and shelves. I would help her toward the escalator two more times before she finally escaped.

Eli's is so not a supermarket. There are no aisles. There is no cookie section (the bakery is upstairs), no cereal section, no cat food or personal hygiene department. Packaged goods are likely to be Eli's own, and very fresh. The dairy department (also upstairs) offers a galaxy of butters but assumes that you will probably buy your milk at lower prices elsewhere. Like coffee, rice is sold by weight: you scoop it into plastic bags, at one of those round tables. The butcher's counter is about the only part of the store that resembles what you might find in a typical suburban supermarket. Except that, as in the produce section, everything is very beautiful. Where are the Cézannes and Caillebottes of today, come to paint these opulent heaps?

No wonder the lady was disoriented. Overwhelmed by the massively unusual stocks and their massively unusual arrangement, she had forgotten what she'd come for. She stood at the foot of the escalator, uncertain about getting on. (Why did she ask me and not a white-uniformed employee? Probably because she thought that they wouldn't speak English.)

By the time I went upstairs, the loudspeaker was playing what I'm almost certain was Karajan's recording of The Blue Danube waltz (more correctly: On the Beautiful Blue Danube) - the one that Stanley Kubrick used in 2001. I could not keep myself from whistling along, taking all the repeats. I don't care who minded.

As we are finishing lunch, a little while ago - the gazpacho was "TRAY good" - I realize that I'd forgotten to buy coconut milk. Happily, there is a can in the larder.

July 22, 2006

My Super Ex-Girlfriend

Yesterday, I saw My Super Ex-Girlfriend. I had a ball, but, for once, I more or less agree with Times film critic Manohla Dargis.

How hard and often you laugh will probably hinge on a host of other variables, like your appreciation for a cast that includes Eddie Izzard as the villainous Professor Bedlam, as well as your tolerance for junky-looking cinematography and Mr. Reitman’s cheerfully slapdash direction.

I didn't think that the cinematography was all that bad; I thought it was absolutely standard. Uma Thurman certainly looked great. She looked a lot of things, actually; much of the interest of the film lies in her Protean visage, which can pass from "serene goddess" to "Elaine May neurotic" in the blink of an eye. It's this unpredictability, in fact, that prompts your back brain to believe that her Jenny Johnson really is endowed with G Girl powers.

Actually, all of the interest of this picture lies in its cast. Without them, its many funny bits would be annoying. As in The Lake House, we're served material that would be inedibly stale if gifted, intelligent actors weren't fully inhabiting their parts. Just as Sandra Bullock' ability to sigh with an earnestness that makes questioning the physics of a time-traveling correspondence seem hugely beside the point is absolutely essential to keep that very point out of the film's way, so it is with Uma Thurman's busy face. My Super Ex-Girlfriend may not be Ms Thurman's most important film, but even Shakespeare wouldn't give her a more comprehensive chance to show off her chops. She is helped (as Ms Bullock is helped by her leading man) by Luke Wilson's firm inhabitation of his stock persona, the slightly-above-average nice-guy-but-still-a-guy. Add a group of committed supporting actors - Anna Faris, Rainn Wilson, and Eddie Izzard (and let's not forget Wanda Sykes!) - and you've got an ensemble that only a truly botched screenplay could smother. Even Teddy Castelucci's deliriously bombastic score, which seems to have been written for some other kind of movie, can't spoil the fun.

Trust me when I say that questions raised by the trailer are all quite neatly, even ingeniously solved. I don't think you'll see the solution coming, but if you do, you'll just be more relaxed about enjoying the show. After all, what we have here is a heroine, or perhaps a "heroine," who confesses that it was because she "knew" that her boyfriend would come back to her that she didn't kill him. Sounds like something a spider might say - at least until you remember the things that she did do to him. Are men right to fear strong and capable women? Are superpowers unsuited to volatile female nature? (Ask that question in the wrong bar, and you'll get your clock cleaned.) Let's just say that My Super Ex-Girlfriend gives a delightful new twist to the meaning of "left holding the bag."

Visually, My Super Ex-Girlfriend behaves like a stretch limo of prom-goers in from Merrick, Long Island, for the night. It cannot get enough of Manhattan. This is where Mr Castelucci's music is particularly fatuous: the producers seem to be glorying in the city not as it exists but as something that they thought up all by themselves. New York! New York! The movie could have taken place anywhere, but recent evidence suggests that Chicago is reserved for utterly realistic romances, while, in LA, nobody ever really connects. San Francisco's film commission requires car chases, and if you haven't got an ethnic-conflict angle you won't be welcome in Boston. And, as The Wedding Crashers showed once and for all, Washington is a party town. I'm convinced that most Americans don't believe that New York City really exists, even when they're crossing Times Square after dark or sagging on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That unbelievable city has never been more adoringly captured on film. All it needs is Tinkerbelle. Come to think of it, Ms Thurman does a pretty good job of updating the Tinkerbelle concept.

July 21, 2006

Critics and Mass Audiences

In the Times on Tuesday, film critic A O Scott ventured a defense of his profession, in the teeth of the massive popularity of a movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, that he and his colleagues have, shall we say, not praised.

For the second time this summer, then, my colleagues and I must face a frequently — and not always politely — asked question: What is wrong with you people? I will, for now, suppress the impulse to turn the question on the moviegoing public, which persists in paying good money to see bad movies that I see free. I don’t for a minute believe that financial success contradicts negative critical judgment; $500 million from now, “Dead Man’s Chest” will still be, in my estimation, occasionally amusing, frequently tedious and entirely too long.

Having seen this movie's predecessor, I'm certain that Mr Scott's evaluation of the sequel is dead-on. But I thought that, if he wouldn't turn the question on the moviegoing public, I would. Why do masses of people enjoy movies that critics find at least "frequently tedious"? Why doesn't everybody find such movies tedious? Boring is boring, no?

No. Not at all. What could be more boring than a performance of Parsifal for someone hitherto unexposed to opera? To Wagner? To Parsifal itself, for heaven's sake? This is one kind of "boring." It's the "nothing's happening" objection of people who don't know, bless their souls, what kind of "happening" to expect. As a rule, intelligent people can be taught what to look for, and the odds are that, if they're at all musical, they'll respond with enthusiasm and train themselves to pay attention to the details. This is the kind of "boring," then, that is dissipated by education. It is what keeps the arts and ideas alive.

Education, clearly, has nothing to do with savoring the pleasures of Dead Man's Chest, such as they are. Johnny Depp's burlesque in the leading role is undoubtedly delightful, and its contrast probably makes Orlando Bloom's leaden performance unintentionally funny. But what about the "frequently tedious" bits? Is there something that the critics are missing, something that they ought to learn, the better to appreciate the film? Hardly. Their "boring" stems from knowing exactly where to look but not finding anything there. Is the audience finding something interesting somewhere else? No: the audience is not paying attention.

Critics are people who are paid to pay attention. All the time, to every detail. The audience is under no such obligation. For the audience, "it's only a movie." There's no law against letting your mind wander - if you're young, you'll be having a lot of trouble preventing it from wandering. If the movie ceases momentarily to merit your attention, that's no biggie. When it's time to pay attention again, the movie will let you know.

And there are levels of attentiveness. Critics are expected to pay full attention. Ordinary viewers can pay just enough attention to keep track of the story. For regular people, for the mass audience that flocks to pay to see the film, a motion picture is not an artistic unit, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, composed of coherent parts. No. A movie is a series of moments, some of them okay, some of them really exciting, some of them funny, and so forth. When the series itself is interesting, as happens in great popular entertainment, then many people, not just critics, will come away with the sense of a powerful whole, but that experience is not really necessary to the enjoyment of a movie. (This would explain the popularity of kung-fu movies, which are comprised almost exclusively of climaxes.) The enjoyment of a movie requires little more than a darkened auditorium, a moderately comfortable seat, a synchronized audience on the noise front, and working eyes and ears. That's it.

A problem in all the arts, but one that is most acute in the movies, is that first-class work can have a mass appeal, even though relatively few are equipped to analyze its greatness. This is an inconvenient truth, because a great deal of first-class work will never have a mass appeal, while a great deal of utter junk will. The respective circles of "critics" and "mass audiences" do not broadly overlap, but if they didn't overlap at all, there would be no quarreling about boobs and elitists.

Oh, I almost forgot. There is one thing that is very hard, possibly impossible, to learn, and that is how to overlook, temporarily, what you've learned. Once you've been schooled to give something your full attention, trying not do to so triggers alarms of guilt and irritation. That's why it's dangerous to learn about art and ideas. You might be compelled to live among people who have no time for either.

July 20, 2006

Notes from a Summer Afternoon

It's no longer as beastly outside as it was a few days ago, but it's still pretty canicular. I let little household tasks pile up, unwilling to spend even a minute doing something sweat-making instead of sitting beside a fan. The apartment feels a bit airless, so I for one am hoping for a downpour tonight or tomorrow: I'll open the windows and let in some fresh nitrogen.

It was bearable enough to walk to McDonald's for a weekly fix, the real objective being to visit the Video Room a few doors further down Third Avenue and pick something to watch while doing the ironing. Much as I love being thought of as a perfectly idle, meditative sort, I have to tell you that the pillowcase stuffed with damp napkins and handkerchiefs has been bothering me since Saturday, when I got Kathleen to run them through the wash. So to bribe myself into making it go away, I rented A Cock and Bull Story, Michael Winterbottom's fantasia on themes from Tristram Shandy. This was my introduction to the amazing talent of Steve Coogan - shame on you for not telling me about him. Certainly no more apt novel could be chosen as the base for a movie about making movies; as it's fashionable to say these days, Tristram Shandy is the first post-modern novel. Making a movie is just about as non-linear as Sterne's digressive novel, and no one knows what the finished product will look like. (Not that I know what I'm talking about here.) Gillian Anderson is particularly fetching, both in costume and in mufti - I'd have been happy to see more of her.

I saved the ironing for the next feature, A Good Woman, a used copy of which I bought, sight unseen. How bad could a snazzy adaptation of Lady Windermere's Fan, with Helen Hunt, Scarlett Johansson, and Tom Wilkinson be? I can imagine that not everyone is going to love the American actresses playing mother and daughter, but I'm a big fan of Helen Hunt's sharpness, and Scarlett Johansson is a guilty pleasure. A Good Woman is studded, of course, with plenty of Oscar Wilde's best aphorisms, such as Mrs Erlynne's observation that when most people speak of "an experience," they're really talking about "a mistake." (The line is actually Cecil Graham's in the play: "Experience is the name Tuppy gives to his mistakes.")

There was still plenty of ironing when A Good Woman ended, so I cracked open the DVD, newly received, of Series II of Mapp and Lucia. This is weaker than the first series, but still great fun, and of course it's almost unbearable to watch Mapp and Major Benjy enjoy married bliss.

Fun Home


With Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel has convinced me that the term "graphic novel" is not an oxymoron. Without naming names, I'll just say that none of the other exemplars of this genre amounted, in my view, to more than a stunt. None of them seemed adult enough to merit association with conventional novels. Chris Ware's work has much more in common with cinema than it does with prose fiction; it's frozen film.

Technically, Fun Home is a memoir, not a novel. But it utilizes the narrative techniques of fiction. Its structure reminds me somewhat of that of Sophie's Choice. A handful of facts are established early, and then the gaps between them are filled in, culminating in a climactic recognition for the reader as well as for the narrator. The motion of the story is recursive, and with each pass the retrieved material takes on a deeper richness. Finally, there is Ms Bechdel's very firm grasp of her motifs. Where other entrants in this field do not appear to have done very much reading, it's clear that Alison Bechdel has had a thoroughgoing literary education. Indeed, her linkages to Proust and Joyce are completely successful, not for a moment appliquéd. Her craftmanship is astonishing.

I'm astonished and I'd like to remain astonished for a little while....

Continue reading about Fun Home at Portico.

July 19, 2006

In the Book Review

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review.

Fiction & Poetry

Seamus Heaney's new collection of poems, District and Circle, gets a nice review from fellow poet Brad Leithauser. Sympathetic and favorable, it begins with a paragraph about judging poets by their approach to rhyme, and goes on to suggest that Mr Heaney's rough rhymes (of which, unfortunately, he provides no examples) correspond eloquently to the Irish topography that is never far from his verse.

Heaney has always had a gift for recounting chance encounters, poignant little anecdotes. His voice carries the authenticity and believability of the plainspoken - even though (herein his magic) his words are anything but plainspoken. His stanzas are dense echo chambers of contending nuances and ricocheting sounds. And his is the gift of saying something extraordinary while, line by line, conveying a sense that this is something an ordinary person might actually say. 

In fiction, two novels, both of South American extraction, get full-page treatment, while two novels with academic settings get reviews that share a page. And then there's Andrew Sean Greer's puzzling review of Voodoo Heart: Stories, by Scott Snyder. Mr Greer believes that the collection consists of two remarkably inventive stores and five workmanlike ones.

Snyder's true talent is revealed when he lets his imagination soar. In the final story, a young man, barnstorming his way across the Midwest, finds a runaway bride in his biplane. When he sits with her by a campfire and they invent a fictional account of their courtship and wedding - "you took my hand and we went out the bedroom window and climbed down the rain gutter together" - they transport us to the beautiful, quiet, darkened room of the best fiction. The sound of traffic disappears and time flows away and we're in the middle of that primal American narrative: the invention of the self. We read on to see if the runaway will really climb out on that airplane's wing. And when she does - "a pretty girl in a blue dress, head thrown back, the wind in her hair as she passed overhead" - the moment is pure ecstasy.

Sympathetic reviews are effective because they enter into the quality of their subject matter and so share it with the review's reader. As William H Gass says in his essay about Gertrude Stein's Three Lives (in  The Temple of Texts), quality cannot be reported. But it can be captured and presented. The paragraph that I've just quoted indicates to me that neither Mr Snyder nor Mr Greer is a writer about whom I want to know more, but that's the point. The selfsame paragraph may leap out appealingly at you.

Hugo Lindgren's review of the latest Manhattan prep school nightmare, Academy X, by Andrew Trees, is almost funny.

The first 10 or 20 pages, chockablock with strained humor and banal pronouncements..., were so dreadful that getting through this rather thin novel suddenly felt like a homework assignment from hell.

Nevertheless, Mr Lindgren

wolfed down the last 100 pages in under an hour, and though I did not feel particularly well-nourished as I closed the book, I did have the strength to live myself off the couch.

Lisa Zeider is a lot harder on Lawrence Douglas's The Catastrophist. The novel is about an art historian who, like the author, specializes in Holocaust memorials, and Ms Zeidner all but states that Mr Douglas's academic work on the subject is more interesting than the novel.

But while Daniel has his moments of dry wit ... , all the female characters, including the one whose native language is German, sound pretty much alike, and it's hard to imagine what they would see in this nail-biting narcissist.

Liesl Schillinger's review of Marie Arana's Cellophane and Pico Iyer's review of Turing's Delirium, by Edmundo Paz Soldan (translated by Lisa Carter) share a strange squint-forcing glare that I can only attribute to efforts to place these novels in the context of Latin American literature generally and in relation to magical realism in particular. Mr Iyer, while trying to show how the Bolivian Mr Paz Soldan has left magical realism behind, manages to make Turing's Delirium sound too virtual and paranoiac to be any less strange than fiction by Gabriel García Marquez. Ms Schillinger, far more sympathetic to her book, attempts to summarize Ms Arana's very strange story about an engineer who takes his family into the Peruvian jungle in order to set up a Cellophane factory, but ends up making it sound overwrought. Her review is perhaps tellingly entitled "A Wilderness of Mud."


The cover of this week's review shows the head of Henry Ward Beecher, and my first thought was "Do I have to"? There's something so unappealing about Beecher's clenched jaw, sad eyes, and straying white hair that I read the pendant review very much under duress. According to Michael Kazin, The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher, by Debby Applegate, is an exception to the rule that "[f]ew great preachers in American history have been well served by their biographers." His review, however, makes a case for regarding The Most Famous Man as a masterwork in American studies - as much about Beecher's America as about the man himself. A whoppingly successful preacher brought low by an adultery trial, Beecher was one of the principal manufacturers of the mush of American Christianity.

Whenever you hear a sentimental sermon - whatever the preacher's denomination, race or political leanings - echoes from Beecher's Plymouth Church are actually ringing in your ears.

Richard Labunski serves up another slice of American history in James Madison and the Struggle for the the Bill of Rights, but Gary Rosen is unimpressed by the attempt to put the famously reticent and cerebral Madison at the center of a lively story. And he's not sure that Mr Labunski truly understands his subject.

But was passage of the Bill of Rights equally "pivotal"? Labunski plainly thinks so, but Madison did not. For him, amendments were largely a means to an end, a way to secure popular support for the new government, whose powers he was determined to preserve. Of Madison's view that "parchment barriers" were unlikely to stop an oppressive government or majority, Labunski is dismissive.

On the United States of today, German journalist Josef Joffe has written Überpower: The Imperial Tempation of America. Roger Cohen doesn't care for Mr Joffe's prose style (too much alliteration), and he's not terribly sympathetic to Mr Joffe's thinking, either. This dooms his review to near meaninglessness. What are we to make of this conclusion?

Überpower is a brilliant polemic for benign American centrality, a reminder that America remains a force for good in the world. But it is an unconvincing, often irksome prescription for how that can endure?

Nor did I derive much satisfaction from Stanley Fish's review of Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism Into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving Left Wing Freak Show, by Geoffrey Nunberg. This extremely unsympathetic review (a form of which Mr Fish is something of a master) aims to present the book's arguments while arguing against them or finding them inadequate. The result is a mean-spirited scold.

This is not to disdain the truth: in the final analysis the question of what is true and false is paramount. But Nunberg isn't offering a final analysis here, only a rhetorical and political analysis. [?] His claim that he is allied with the truth against the forces of conservative darkness may be endearing, but it is utterly unhelpful.

And so is Mr Fish's review. As if to show how to scold with style, Jennifer Senior, writing on Friendship: An Exposé, by Joseph Epstein, asks, "How interesting can the observations of a man who avoids such entanglements be?" and then answers, "not so very." I'm afraid that my own disappointment with Mr Epstein's Snobbery infected my reading of Ms Senior's review, but I still think that she cites enough examples of Mr Epstein's retrograde mentality to show that Friendship is a book written about the Fifties, not about today. It's all right to be unsympathetic toward books that have so little raison d'être.

Alan Light gives John Strausbaugh's Black Like You: Insult & Imagination in American Popular Culture a sensitive review - sensitive, that is, to the hot-button associations that blackface minstrelsy has (rightly) taken on, after decades of condescending cluelessness. Although he believes that "[t]oo much of Black Like You is taken up with Strausbaugh's railings against multiculturalism and the language police," he concludes that

the contribution made by Black Like You far outweighs any disputes about its details. Strausbaugh has taken a disturbing piece of American cultural history and illustrated the ways that this music, for better and for worse, helped shape our world. As these songs performed for white audiences by white men painted black, based on songs sung by black men that might have been written by white men, gained popularity, he writes, "the question of whether minstrelsy was white or black music was moot. It was a mix, a mutt - that is it was American music."

In Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope, Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi writes (with Azadeh Moaveni) of disillusionment and worse in an apparently moving account of her career as a former Iranian judge who participated in the Islamic Revolution but soon found that women's equality with men was not an operating principle of the new regime. Laura Secor's review is very sympathetic, and furnishes abundant quotations.

What we do get is a complex and moving portrait of a life lived in truth, as Vaclav Havel would put it, within the stultifying confines of a political system intended to compel passivity. Ebadi is well aware of the compromises forced on her as she works to curb the Islamic legal system's worst excesses.

Edward Rothstein disagrees with the late Edward Said's thesis in On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain, a posthumous essay cobbled together by critic Michael Wood from lectures delivered in London and classes taught at Columbia. But he does so so gracefully that one engages with the book, if only to take part in a conversation about beautiful music.

Late style, Said suggests, expresses a sense of being out of place and time: it is a rejection of what is being offered. But listen to Beethoven or Strauss or Gould: the music is more like a discovery of place. That place is different from where one started; it may not even be what was once expected or desired. But it is there, in resignation and fulfillment, that late works take their stand, where even exile meets its end.

[I must say that I was surprised by Mr Rothstein's failure to object to Mr Said's writing of Mozart's "late style." In Mozart's case, any "lateness" was purely fortuitous. Mozart did not die resigned and fulfilled; he died of overwork and something like mania. He was holding on to life a little too hard.]

Tara McKelvey reviews five books in a Nonfiction Chronicle

The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs, by Madeline Albright with Bill Woodward. "Her positions and reasoned and enlightened - though hardly surprising - but at times the prose evokes a Center for American Progress special report and, on other occasions, a United Nations fact sheet, filled with bland quotations, rhetorical questions and, tragically, Yeats paraphrased: 'It is when the best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity that things fall apart.' At this point, even a supporter of her views may wonder: Is nothing sacred?"

The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America's Newfound Sovereignty, by William Hogeland. The author "fails to make the case that the battle should have been fought - especially since the tax was repealed in 1802, 11 years after the rebellion began. Still, he conjures up a lively post-Revolutionary War world where everybody - man, woman and child - drinks hard liquor 'at all times of day'..."

Doolitle, by Ben Sisario. "A friend of mine once had a girlfriend who kept a careful diary. 'Never has so much been written about so little,' he'd say. You could say that about Doolittle, too, an entire book devoted to a Pixies album."

The Collar: A Year of Striving and Faith Inside a Catholic Seminary, by Jonathan Englert. Of Mr Englert's report (he was not himself a seminarian): "His account of their spiritual journey often seems superficial and rushed - especially considering the church's teachings on patience. Yet Englert conveys the courage and selflessness of his characters, all of whom at least try to follow St Francis of Assisi's advice: 'Preach the Gospel always - if necessary, use words'."

Possible Side Effects, by Augusten Burroughs. ["TOT" = the Triumph Over Tragedy genre so popular in women's magazines] "Yet a Burroughs essay, even at its most poignant and confessional, is the anti-TOT. Unflinchingly, he gouges himself (literally and figuratively), bleeds, gets it on paper - often without a neat resolution or the genre's obligatory epiphany - and then makes you laugh. Now that's genius."

Allen St John gives Full Swing: Hits, Runs and Errors in a Writer's Life, by Ira Berkow, a warmly sympathetic review.

Full Swing is like a great ballpark conversation, where everything and anything is fair game. In the process of layering story upon story, connecting tangent to tangent, each memory marking the passage of time, Berkow reveals himself to be curious, contrarian and a steadfast champion of the underdog. You'll never look at his byline in quite the same way again.

Benjamin Kukel's Essay, "Misery Loves a Memoir," takes a jaundiced look at the popularity of memoirs these days.

So it is that we live in a rich and free country, full of striving individuals chasing comfort and distinction, whose autobiographical literature tells us that helpless addiction and passive suffering are the most meaningful experiences you can have.


July 18, 2006

Never Let Me Go Reading

Comment-Entry "JMK 1" has been added to the Never Let Me Go thread at Good For You.

"Russia is big..."

Well! At least on-line, the Times has forsaken its "family newspaper" primness, and quoted the Leader of the Free World as saying "shit." I haven't examined the print eidtion of the paper yet; Kathleen says that she can't find a quotation. Still.

Cenk Uygur, at the Huffington Post, calls the president a "third grader," because of his "Russia's big and so is China" line. The sad truth is that Mr Bush is an oil-patch Texan. You cannot imagine the insular arrogance of oil-patch Texans. You have to hear them talk. Mr Bush has done us the favor of opening a window on his world. Listening to the MP3 clip gave me a jolt - I thought I was eavesdropping at the River Oaks Country Club.


The Times reported yesterday that radio station WNYC is about to vacate the premises in the Municipal Building that it has occupied since 1924, thus finalizing its separation from city government. In his story about the move, Glenn Collins quotes our own local Rambo, Curtis Sliwa, the populist host of a program at WABC.

"If you have a blue collar or no collar, and you listen to WNYC, you're going to turn the dial because you know they aren't talking to you; they speak the language of the suites, not the language of the streets."

Mr Sliwa's wordplay may be clever, but it's deeply wrong. The idea that all educated people share a certain political outlook is sheer nonsense, and I would venture that most of WNYC's listeners regard "the suites" with hostility even greater than Mr Sliwa's contempt. I don't know where else one might find local discussions in support of raising the minimum wage and in general improving the lot of Mr Sliwa's colored collars.

There ought to be a name for this maneuver - this dismissal of all educated conversation as "elitist," in the sense of being unconcerned about "the real world." It's the worst sort of demagoguery, not so much because it misidentifies college grads as the enemy of "ordinary" people but because it suggests that education itself is a sort of toxic transformative process. Get an education, it implies, and you'll be ruined for regular life. In fact, it is the lack of education that is toxic. To be an adult in our society without the resources that a college education opens up is to be hobbled by mental malnutrition. Trying to navigate the modern world without the intellectual training provided by higher education, intelligent people nonetheless fall for this or that conspiracy theory, this or that simplisticism. Such as Curtis Sliwa's notion that WNYC speaks "the language of the suites." What rubbish. WNYC speaks the language of "get an education!" Which, failing all else, the station's listeners can work on just by paying attention.

According to Glenn Collins' report, WNYC has not only the largest public-radio audience in the nation but also the largest share of Manhattan's radio listeners.

July 17, 2006

Don't shoot me yet!

We watched House of Cards for the first time this weekend, and I'm alarmed to note that, when I'm feeling responsible and productive nowadays, I sound to myself like Francis Urquhart.

Support groups?

Catherine Deneuve

Yesterday afternoon, I watched Nearest to Heaven (Au plus près du paradis), a Tonie Marshall film starring Catherine Deneuve. And William Hurt. I'll have to see it again before I can talk about it with you, but in talking about it with Kathleen afterward I hit on something about Ms Deneuve. The point may be a well-known cliché to people who talk about the movies, so pardon me if I repeat - but do tell me!

And what I'm going to "repeat," if it has been said before, is that Catherine Deneuve has entirely renovated the template of the role of the female star. She has done it the hard way. No one can doubt that in Repulsion and Belle de Jour she played "objects of the male gaze," and did so very well. But she grew up, and so did the filmmakers. At the moment, I'm ignorant enough to say that it was in The Last Metro that she played both a great "desirable" beauty and a person in her own right. Nowadays, of course, she plays only the person in her own right, a person who happens, amazingly, to be more beautiful than her younger self - probably because she's not acting. (Of course she's acting! How could I be so impertinent?) Nowadays, the directors line up to make a film starring Catherine Deneuve, as the fragile but commonsensical beauty she is, a woman whose hands, even, do not betray her sixty-plus years. (All right, she was 59 when she made Nearest to Heaven - opposite an actor two years [really almost three] younger than I am, not five years older.) And they keep making great movies.

Witness Place Vendôme, already eight years old. "Juste un camembert," she says. The movie is about her, not about you. Not about what you want. Not about what you want out of her. It cuts you off on the beach.

It cuts me off.

July 16, 2006

Harper's, bizarre

Sunday is my day for reading the Times and The Economist, and when I was done with them this afternoon, I picked up the current issue of Harper's, which arrived yesterday. The image on the cover, "Inferno," by Sandow Birk, gives some idea of what the top story is about. "Imagine There's No Oil: Scenes from a Liberal Apocalypse," by Brian Urstadt, is the author's account of his meetings with various Peak Oil groups. I was unaware of the apocalyptic cast of mind that, according to Mr Urstadt's story, is characteristic of Peak Oilers, most of whom doubt that anything but social collapse will follow the exhaustion of petroleum. This apocalyptic cast of mind is pre-eminently American, marking all sorts of end-of-times groups at least since Ann Lee arrived from England in 1774 and founded the first Shaker community. "Americans seem born to love the apocalypse, even though it jilts us every time," writes Mr Urstadt. "Both Peak Oil and Left Behind are mere froth on a deep historical sea of doomsaying that stretches back to the Puritans, and possibly before, if one includes the apocalyptic predilections of Christopher Columbus." This bit of contextualizing did little to lighten my spirits.

And as for the other Harper's, I checked Wikipedia, but I learned nothing there. So I am going to ask you. Can anyone direct me to an Internet page that explains the celebrity of Britney Jean Spears, currently gracing the cover of Harper's Bazaar, wearing nothing but a jinormous necklace? And of course a baby belly.

July 15, 2006

A Scanner Darkly

It was a difficult choice. A Scanner Darkly and You, Me and Dupree were showing in the neighborhood. So is Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest, but I can't imagine sitting through that in a theatre. Sitting through Richard Linklater's A Scanner Darkly was pretty trying as it was, at least during the second fifteen minutes. The film, which was shot as live action and then run through a rotoscope to give it an animated look, does a very good job of simulating the pleasures of a moderately-bad hangover. Angst and remorse pour off the screen. We're in the land of Philip K Dick, one of Southern California's most chronic malfunctioners. The 1977 novel on which the film is based must be a joy to read. Not.

It's the rotoscoping that makes A Scanner Darkly so powerfully uncomfortable. It's obvious that there's a live-action film, with Keanu Reeves, Robert Downey, Jr, Woody Harrelson and (I think) Winona Ryder really going through the moves, somewhere beneath the impasto. The sketchiness of animation - the huge reduction in visual detail - very effectively turns the original footage into something impossibly dreamlike. Technically, A Scanner Darkly is the most brilliant movie about Californian anomie ever made. Which is why you may want to think twice before running out to see it.

For an excellent discussion of A Scanner Darkly, visit CultureSpace.

July 14, 2006

Prospect Park


There will be no summer hours for me today, as Ms NOLA and M le Neveu are on their way to New Hampshire, to visit my aunt and my cousin - M le Neveu's grandmother and mother, respectively. I'll go to the movies - A Scanner Darkly looks like a good choice, although there's also the guilty pleasure of You, Me and Dupree at ten - then have lunch at the Metropolitan Museum, and then come home to do the weekly housework. Winter hours for me! But Ms NOLA and I did put her summer hours to edifying use last week, with a more penetrating exploration of Prospect Park in Brooklyn.

Continue reading about Prospect Park at Portico.

July 13, 2006

Diamond Legs


After a lovely lunch, an innocent cup of tea. Oh, I forgot. This was before the cup of tea. Without fail, the legs moved while the picture processed. It was all I could do to keep up.







A friend who checks in at the Daily Blague from time to time came uptown for a late lunch. She was on her way to a Rat Dog concert at Radio City, hence the attire. (For those of you who, like me, have no idea what Rat Dog is, I'll just say that The Grateful Dead lives on.) Coming back to the apartment after lunch, we repaired to separate nose-powdering facilities, after which I checked up on things at the desk and my friend made calls from the balcony, which is the best place to be on a cell phone here. Looking out my window... this entire entry is proof that I have not grown up one iota since kindergarten, when I was the terror of the schoolyard, peeking up girls' skirts. I am a Troublemaker!

Up at the Villa: Book into Film



Up at the Villa, Philip Haas's adaptation of Somerset Maugham's novel of the same name, is one of my favorite movies. Kristin Scott Thomas, Sean Penn, Anne Bancroft, James Fox and Jeremy Davies all turn in fantastic performances, and the décor is opulent. So, when the novel fell into my hands, I was avid to read it. Imagine my surprise.

In the movie, the Fascists are intensifying their control of daily life. Foreign residents are required to register with the people on a weekly basis. Against this background, Mary Panton, the heroine, is in something of a pickle when a young man shoots himself in her bedroom - and uses a handgun given to her by the man who wants to marry her. Rowley Flint, a dissolute but wealthy American, comes to her rescue, and helps her to dispose of the body.

The body is discovered, along with Rowley's gun, which he substituted for Sir Edgar's. Two days later, he is detained by the police, with Sir Edgar's weapon on his person. This means that Sir Edgar will be in the soup when he returns from Cannes - all guns must be registered! Mary remembers what the Princess San Ferdinando, a wealthy American widow, told her about Beppino Leopardi, the chief Fascist in Florence and a man who has leered in Mary's direction. I won't spoil it here, but Mary undertakes a somewhat elaborate and very daring ruse, and pulls it off. She gets Rowley out of jail and Sir Edgar's gun.

But as Sir Edgar is about to be Governor of Bengal, Mary sees that she can't be Caesar's wife; eventually, the story of the boy in the bedroom will get out. So she lets Sir Edgar off, even though this leaves her with no marital prospects (Rowley is married) and no money.

In the book, Rowley is English and unmarried, so Mary agrees to marry him. Also, and by the way, nothing that occurred in the second paragraph of my synopsis occurs in the book. No Fascists, no gun problems, no elaborate ruse. I might add that the elaborate ruse is the heart of the movie, and a real caper. It was, to put it mildly, a bit of a surprise to find it missing from the book. Screenwriter Belinda Haas evidently made it all up.

Nonetheless, the novella succeeds, because it does what movies usually don't: it takes us into Mary's mind. Nor does the book outwear its welcome. A reprint using old plates, with acres of white on every page and not too many words, the Vintage edition currently for sale is a very quick read. For anyone half as interested as I am in the transformation of books into movies, Up at the Villa provides a wonderful pair of experiences. I would recommend reading the story, first serialized in Redbook, of all places, in the spring of 1940, first. I wish I could have done it that way.

July 12, 2006

Never Let Me Go Group Read

In the end, I've decided to locate the group re-reading of Never Let Me Go at Portico. I fear that the exchange of views about Kazuo Ishiguro's novel would come to annoy regular readers of the Daily Blague who don't care to participate in the group re-read. I shall, however, mark every new entry with a brief mention and a link here.

To participate, send your remarks to me in an email. (Be sure to put the title of the novel in the subject line.) I will add what you send to the Portico page.

A simplicity that the Hailsham "students" would have understood.

In the Book Review

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review.

Fiction & Poetry

The Library of America has launched an offshoot line of poetry books, and Cole Porter is "the first lyricist of any stripe," writes David Barber, "to make the roster." Mr Barber, poetry editor at Atlantic, waxes very enthusiastic about Robert Kimball's collection, Cole Porter: Selected Lyrics. He reminds us, however, that words are only half of the Cole Porter story.

Truth be told, there's something about his words all by their lonesome that smacks of taxidermy: their pulse depends not only on the visceral artistry of vocal delivery but on the stage personas and narrative trappings so vital to Porter's collaborative medium.

It might have been better to assign this book to someone unfamiliar with the Porter oeuvre. Dan Chiasson gives the very different White Apples and the Taste of the Stone: Selected Poems, 1946-2006, the latest collection of Donald Hall's poetry, that rarest of pieces, the sympathetic but unfavorable review. The thrust of Mr Chiasson's complaint is that Mr Hall has not been nearly selective enough. 

But a short book of very fine poems is what Hall, over the course of his career, has made. A selected poems reflecting that proud fact would make his best work seem the result of terms carefully developed, pains taken. This book tells another story.

Three novels are reviewed this week. Getting full treatment is the late Roberto Bolaño's Last Evenings on Earth (translated by Chris Andrews), a collection of stories that Francine Prose fervently wishes us all to read. I must say that my own recollection of the powerful title story, which appeared in The New Yorker not long ago, distracted me from Ms Prose's praise - very unprofessional of me. The review makes its case indirectly, recounting the reviewer's fevered discovery of the author's work and the eagerness with which she talked him up to her friends. One feels that her piece ought to be twice as long: so much is crammed into the space allotted that the review approaches unintelligibility. The prime facts about Bolaño - the intensity of his writing and the fact that one is discovering him posthumously - shrouds his work with a regret that suits it all too well.

Sharing a page are Ada Calhoun's review of The Pale Blue Eye, by Louis Bayard, and Tom Barbash's review of Clare Allan's Poppy Shakespeare. The latter book appears to be something of a satire about neglectful mental-health services in Britain, but Mr Barbash does not indicate the kind of fun that's on offer, if any. Nor does he provide an extensive quote indicative of the satire's flavor. Although the review is favorable, I don't see readers rushing to acquire the book on the strength of it. According to Ms Calhoun, Mr Bayard "reinvigorates historical fiction," and she deems this mystery, set at West Point and solved (or not) by a fictional constable and his real-life sidekick, a sleuth by the name of Poe, a success.

Messengers drive phaetons. There's black magic, phrenology, a profusion of ghosts, even a boat trip through torch-lit mist. But none of it seems musty. Bayard does what all those ads for historical tourist destinations promise: as Landor says at death's door, "the past comes on with all the force of the present."


On the cover this week is a hurricane, as seen from space. In "Hell and High Water," David Oshinsky uses two new books about the devastation of New Orleans, wrought indirectly by Katrina, to rehash the disaster. The scale of the catastrophe swamps the review. One learns that both The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, by David Brinkley, and Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the New Death of a Great American City, by Jed Horne, regard re-elected Mayor Ray Nagin with a disapproving eye. And Mr Oshinsky writes that "those seeking a more condensed take" ought to choose Breach of Faith. He likes both books, but is so horrified by the story that they tell that, writing in parallel, he fails to let us know how well they tell it.

At the other end of the urgency scale, Dana Goodyear shrugs out a review of Tales of the Rose Tree: Ravishing Rhododendrons and Their Travels Around the World, by Jane Brown. Ms Goodyear does not think much of Ms Brown's mentality, finding it "an oddly 19th-century cast of mind" given to flights of fancy that are not "helpful." But, hey, she had to read the book, and here are some interesting points. Why this book wasn't covered in the Nonfiction Chronicle, I have no idea. A full page (with pictures) devoted to an iffy gardening book?

Equally odd, if not quite so lengthy, is Thomas Mallon's review of Reggie Nadelson's Comrade Rockstar: The Life and Mystery of Dean Reed, the All-American Boy Who Brought Rock 'n' Roll to the Soviet Union.

In the wildly meandering Comrade Rockstar, first published in England 15 years ago, she sometimes has trouble remembering what she's written a page or even a paragraph ago, and the book is full of breathtaking errors...

So much for the book. For most of the review, Mr Mallon writes in parallel about the bizarre career of a second-rate singer-actor from Colorado. (Here's what I mean by writing "in parallel": Sketching a thumbnail of the book's story in such a way that the reader can't distinguish with any certainty what the reviewer is regurgitating from the book from what the reviewer already knew. Parallels review almost never engage directly with the books themselves.)

Katherine Lanpher gives Catherine Friend's Hit By A Farm: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Barn a quizzically favorable review, but one without a word about Ms Friend's writing. The author writes of surrendering to her partner's obsession with returning to the land, subsequently rebelling but eventually acquiescing. "There might even be material for a sequel," Ms Lanpher somewhat fatuously ventures.

I often preach that a good review does not fault a book for being something that it never set out to be, but there are other things to bear in mind, such as the need to expose hypocrisy and evasion. Mary Cheney's Now It's My Turn: A Daughter's Chronicle of Political Life may not be terribly hypocritical, but it is most certainly evasive. Alexandra Jacobs points out that Ms Cheney is not obliged, either by her orientation or her public figure, to be a gay-rights advocate, but surely we have the right to expect her to discuss the contradictions inherent in a parental relationship that's supposed to be both loving and hostile to gay rights.

Cheney acknowledges that the president's position on gay marriage gives her "a knot in the pit of my stomach," so what in the name of Rita Mae Brown stopped her from confronting him? Timidity? Deference? Or her avowed desire to "maintain a low profile" (which raises the question: why write this book at all)?

Why, indeed.

The rhododendron book would have fit right in with the other selections in Florence Williams's Nonfiction Chronicle, all of which are nature books in one way or another.

Seaworthy: Adrift With William Willis in the Golden Age of Rafting, by T R Pearson. "The first nonfiction book by Pearson, a novelist, Seaworthy occasionally suffers from a lack of sourcing, and it could have benefited from a more thorough discussion of relevant topics like the physiology of hydration."

A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler, by Jason Roberts. "'A medical mystery, a modest hero, a series of cloaked affections. How could my fascination not become an obsession?' he writes. Roberts is only partly successful in conveying his passion."

Secrets of the Savanna: Twenty-Three Years in the African Wilderness Unraveling the Mysteries of Elephants and People, by Mark and Della Owens. "Writing about your achievements can be tricky, though, and parts of the narrative read like grant proposals..."

Murmurs from the Deep: Scientific Adventure in the Caribbean, by Gilles Fonteneau (translated by George Holoch). "Billed as 'scientific adventure,' Murmurs From the Deep fails short on both counts."

The Grandest of Lives: Eye to Eye with Whales, by Douglas H Chadwick. "Observing five species across the world - even swimming among them - Chadwick tallies up fact after fact in a breezy and straightforward style."

Rachel Donadio's Essay, "Saving the Planet, One Book at a Time," reports on the publishing industry's use of recycled paper.

July 11, 2006

My Emerson List

Now that I've finally seen every movie on Jim Emerson's list of 102 films that everyone ought to see, here is my version, with eight substitutions. They are:

The Awful Truth, for Bambi
Evil Under the Sun, for Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Get Shorty, for The Searchers
The Palm Beach Story, for Days of Heaven
¶ The Philadelphia Story
, for The Wild Bunch
Shall We Dance, for Modern Times
Unforgiven, for Dirty Harry
¶ What's Up, Doc?
, for Bringing Up Baby

See the complete list at Portico.

Bambi, The Searchers, Days of Heaven, and The Wild Bunch were dropped to make room for four important comedies; as noted earlier, comedy is seriously underrepresented on the original list; The Awful Truth, Get Shorty, The Palm Beach Story, and The Philadelphia Story are in this sense not substitutions. With Katharine Hepburn on the revised list (and in a much stronger picture), however, I can comfortably exchange the delightful Bringing Up Baby for its even more delightful remake, What's Up, Doc? "There's a person named Eunice?"

Shall We Dance is a state-of-the-art movie that, to my mind, shows Charlie Chaplin's dismal attempt to recreate a silent film the year before for the anachronism that it is. Evil Under the Sun is a much more amusing English movie than the ham-fisted Monty Python and the Holy Grail - I don't believe that Monty Python works at feature length. Finally, Unforgiven is a more grown-up picture than Dirty Harry in every way. Dirty Harry has not aged well - except for folks who are avid listeners of red-state talk radio.

Why eight? I might have changed as many as twelve titles - a baker's ten percent. But the point is not to proselytize my taste. The point is to strengthen the list by adding as many urgent titles as I can think of and then to subtract as many of the less successful pictures as it takes to make room for them. There are still a lot of movies on the list that I would not put there. But I'm glad that I worked through the dozen-odd films that I hadn't seen before. I didn't care for most of them - in fact, I liked only one, The Best Years of Our Lives. But I know more about the movies than I used to. Aguirre, the Wrath of God shows how a director can suggest an overwhelming menace of doom without actually filming much violence. The Big Red One is a solid "man's movie" with sharp edges. The General is funny and engrossing at the same time - Buster Keaton really was sui generis. (What an acrobat!) It's also full of what must have been spectacular tracking shots.

Of course, I'm already tempted to make room for Murder on the Orient Express.

July 10, 2006


Having just learned a new word, "squicked," from Joe My God, I am happier than I can say to be able to use it, pronto, with reference to a detail in Janet Maslin's review of Michael Bamberger's The Man Who Heard Voices: Or How M Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Story.

I am so totally squicked by the 80 ***** ****!

Tom Lutz on Doing Nothing

Tom Lutz's Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), embodies a new type of book - new to me, anyway - one that I'm tempted to call the "California Monograph." The first exemplar of this sort of writing that I came across was Leo Braudy's From Chivalry to Terrorism: War and the Changing Nature of Masculinity (Knopf, 2003), which I read two years ago. I didn't write it up, because I didn't know quite what to make of it. Mr Braudy had lots and lots of interesting things to say about manliness, but I feared that I'd missed the message. Mr Lutz's book suggests that looking for messages in this kind of literature is superfluous, because messages are superfluous. The idea is to present the complexity of life while avoiding neat, reductive generalizations.

Doing Nothing is an engaging read, almost as stuffed with interesting details as From Chivalry to Terror. It is in one way a companion volume: where Mr Braudy looked at warfare as the defining masculine activity, Mr Lutz recognizes that idleness is the masculine daydream. (It's interesting to note that the two come together in the underworld of thugs, where extended idleness is punctuated by occasional improvisatory violence.) Doing Nothing delivers on its promise to trace the history of this daydream in America, and it does so by parading the various shapes and figures that have incarnated idleness over the past two centuries and more, beginning with the apparent philosophical difference between Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Johnson. Franklin exhorted his readers to be busy and productive; Johnson published The Idler. Right from the start, however, Mr Lutz is eager to muddy the picture. Late in life, particularly during his long mission at Paris, Franklin was a sybarite, spending his days and nights enjoying the pleasure of conversations with pretty ladies. Johnson, meanwhile, labored to produce the Dictionary, a monumental effort that indeed produced a monument. Which one was the worker, which the drone? In each of the seven subsequent chapters, we're presented with the equally puzzling archetypes of indolence that were associated with the age: the loungers and Rip van Winkles of the early Republic, the communists and bohemians of the Civil-War era, the neurasthenics of the Gilded Age, the Flappers of the Twenties and the bums of the Depression, the Beats, the hippies, and, finally, today's slackers - many of whom, such as the Japanese hikikomori, seem to me to be in serious need of medical attention.

Relying wholly on documentary evidence, Doing Nothing is necessarily a review of narratives. Only occasionally does Mr Lutz dig for facts and figures; his concern is with changing attitudes toward work and leisure, and these are for the most part reflected in writings (and in other media later) of some sophistication. I was intrigued to meet Joseph Dennie...

Continue reading about Doing Nothing at Portico.

July 09, 2006

Lousy - Not

With me, it is not just a lack of interest in sports. It's games of any kind. I can't even look at the Times crossword puzzle anymore, and the idea of committing several hours to deciphering the Acrostic - do they still run Acrostics? - now strikes me as obscene, although it was once a favored pastime. Nowadays, I have too much to read, but even if I didn't, the fun of games has evaporated. I've lost the sense of play as a "healthy outlet." I'm not producing anything that needs outlets.

The other day, during a Remicade infusion, I asked one of the nurses just what was wrong with me. What's the Remicade actually treating? And the answer seems to be - arthritis. Now, when I think of arthritis, I think of swollen, pained joints. I don't suffer from that. Without the Remicade (as I learned last year, when I had to go without it for an extra month), I feel just plain lousy all the time. I have barely enough energy to get through a very minimal schedule. Dressing and rudimentary housekeeping are the limit of my capacity. I can read and write, but everything else is a burden, and eventually that burden seeps into the reading and writing. Whatever's wrong with me, though, I'd never think to call it "arthritis."

I started taking Remicade because I'm afflicted with ankylosing spondylitis, a degenerative joint disease that has ossified all the discs in my spine, and inflammatory bowel disease. These autoimmune disorders travel together in a nameless syndrome that every now and then I hear called "male lupus." The spondylitis seems to have done its damage, however, and the bowel problems did not recur in the absence of Remicade. Perhaps they would have done, if I'd stayed off it longer, but I felt lousy right away, and that's what I was wondering about: what's the medical term for "lousy"? Evidently, I ought to understand arthritis better than I do.

I no longer remember just when Celebrex stopped working for me, but it was at least two years before I began receiving the Remicade infusions. During that time, I curled up inside myself and did very little outside the apartment. The way I spent last Friday would have been inconceivable as well as impossible. Out of the house at 8:15 and on my feet for over four hours in the afternoon - with a two hour hike in Prospect Park at the end - I didn't get home until 8:45. I'm still feeling a slightly glowing buzz from the exertion.

July 08, 2006

The Devil Wears Prada

Kathleen asked me to wait to see The Devil Wears Prada until she could see it, too, but given my busy days lately - Thursday was the only day in the week that went at all normally - there was no sacrifice in the postponement. We saw Devil on Friday at the unearthly hour of ten o'clock. That there was even a nine o'clock showing is a testament to New Yorkers' passionate devotion either to celebrity tell-alls with a fashionista accent or to Meryl Streep, or to both. Aline Brosh McKenna's screenplay and Peter Frankel's direction have transformed what I understand is a one-dimensional piece of pulpy chick lit into a glamorous dream of New York - and what are the movies for, if not glamorous dreams of New York? So effective was The Devil Wears Prada that I was embarrassed to walk out of the theatre in my madras shirt and shorts. I wouldn't have been welcome in any of the movie's more exalted precincts.

Everybody says that Meryl Streep walks away with the movie, but that's not true. It would be better to say that she presides, in the manner of a Delphic oracle, over the growth and development of Anne Hathaway's character, Andy Sachs. Ms Hathaway makes hay out of Andy's half-hearted experiment in being a player while retaining core values. She's very good at showing how falling to a minor temptation can break the fall to a greater one, and her redemption is plausible precisely because it's a return to good old habits of mind. The tragedy, such as it is, is Miranda Priestly's (Ms Streep): worse than her future of ruptured intimacies, she'll never be able to keep an assistant as gifted as Andy on hand for long, because anyone that bright and capable will find a more integral route to success. Well, maybe if Andy had really cared about fashion...

If anybody threatens to run away with The Devil Wears Prada, it's Stanley Tucci, who plays Nigel, the magazine's art director. Fans of Mr Tucci who are amused to see him play a gay man for a change ought not to miss how he plays a gay man: at least in public, brains come first for Nigel. His outrages against mainstream masculinity are understated but assured, and he's as tough as any other character that Mr Tucci has ever played. This does not prevent Nigel from being a funny man when he's playing guardian angel to Andy - a role for which you fear he might bill at any exceedingly high hourly rate, the better to make her a quick study.

The three supporting principals are Adrian Grenier, as Andy's dreamy sous-chef boyfriend, Nate; Emily Blunt, as Miranda's insufferable British First Assistant, also named Emily, and Simon Baker, as a writer who incarnates the lesser temptation that I mentioned. Mr Baker is a winning, quietly commanding actor who's very good at the appraising glances and considered gentleness for which Robert Redford is famous. May Mr Baker enjoy half Mr Redford's success, if not more! Mr Grenier's combination of baby-sized eyes (that is, they're huge in his face) and persistent five o'clock shadow would probably win him a career even if his bones were mediocre, but they are not, and the man is in danger of being paid just to show up and grin.

Why should it be so difficult, I'd like to know, to combine boffo New York careers with rich, family-centered lives? You'd think that all the top people would agree (a) to do what they've promised to do and (b) to stop interrupting everyone else's life with last-minute emergencies. Wouldn't you think? [Purse lips]

That's all.

July 07, 2006

Don't Secede - Kick Upstate Out!

The New York State Court of Appeals has not disappointed me. In denying the right to same-sex marriage, it has shown itself to be the organ of a backwoods state that just happens to have Gotham pinned to its edge.

More important than the right to gay marriage (for the time being): throwing those hicks off our back. The State of New York is composed of New York City and its watershed. The rest is the State of Erie Canal, or somesuch.

Lose the creeps!

"Ah, then..."

Johannes Brahms was a very witty man. He could be nasty, but he always made people laugh - the ones who weren't his victim. The anecdote that I like best has a self-deprecating surface that hardly conceals the man's cunning. Quite the oenophile, Brahms was delighted to be given a pre-concert dinner, one evening in Koblenz (in 1876), at the home of one Stadrat Wegeler, a noted wine-merchant. Here is how Georg Henschel, a singer and friend of Brahms who was also at the dinner, captured Brahms's rapier thrust:

Towards the end of the repast, which turned out to be rather a sumptuous affair, relished by Brahms as much as by any of us, a bottle of old Rauenthaler of the year '65 was opened, with due ceremony, by our host. It proved indeed to be a rare drop, and we all sat in almost reverential silence, bent over the high, light-green goblets, which we held in close proximity to our respective noses. Wegeler at last broke the silence with the solemn words: "Yes, gentlemen, what Brahms is among composers, this Rauenthaler is among the wines." Quick as lightning Brahms explained: "Ah, then let's have a bottle of the Bach now!"

G Henschel, Musings and Memories of a Musician (Macmillan 1918), quoted in Ivor Keys, Johannes Brahms (Christopher Helm, 1989)

July 06, 2006


Whether anybody minds or not, I'm going to be talking about adoption fairly often in the coming weeks. My life has hit a pothole, in the form of Ann Fessler's The Girls Who Went Away. I'll be writing about that book sometime next week, when the dust has settled and I've decided whether or not I'm out of my mind to call the postwar adoption racket an "American Holocaust." For the moment, I want to talk about my reasons for not searching out my "birth mother" - reasons that I decided to override just the other day.

There were three reasons.

First, I didn't want to have the experience that La petite anglaise has had. The initial euphoria of reuniting with her mother did not last, and now petite is left feeling somewhat embarrassed by the whole relationship - or lack thereof. I know how easy it is to take people up without giving a thought to whether you'll ever want to put them down (see below), and I usually have to see a lot of someone's writing before I start thinking of friendship. (A rule that works very well in the blogosphere!) Curiosity alone is not a good enough reason to plow into decades of history.

My second reason is far more peculiar to me. If my "birth mother" wasn't my mother, nobody was. As it happened, I never bonded with my adoptive mother. I never felt that she was my mother, and then I found out (at the age of seven) that indeed she wasn't my mother. I now know that my adoptive mother was untroubled by the caution at the heart of my first reason. She took me up and then she put me down. It turned out that she was interested only in infants - in children who could not speak for themselves. I would learn this much later, when her attention passed from my daughter to my niece, at about the time when Miss G was developing a real personality. Little S could play the role of the new baby doll. I don't mean to say that my adoptive mother was a bad person. But she was not cut out for motherhood. On the contrary, she was a very frustrated career woman who couldn't see her way to flouting bourgeois conventions. She was not heroic. But you don't understand heroism until you realize that nobody can be faulted for not being heroic. My sister and I were problems on her daily to-do list. We made her sigh, heavily and often. I did not love her - a fact that she detected early, and about which I still feel dreadfully guilty, even though I never felt loved by her. We wanted to love each other - we knew that it was the thing to do. But we got off on the wrong foot somehow, and at least for me the love never bloomed.

Having been in a chronically hostile relationship with my adoptive mother from the age of about five, therefore, I was hardly eager to expose myself to another opportunity for maternal rejection. I don't know what it's like to have a mother (although I have learned from my dear Kathleen what it is like to cherished and cared for), and experience has inclined me to be afraid to find out. I believe that I have really come to terms with the issues that made my childhood so unpleasant (without being in the least Dickensian). My primary feeling about my adoptive parents is very deep sympathy.

The third reason is the one that collapsed massively as I read The Girls Who Went Away. The third reason is that I bought the Story. Here's the story: a poor young unmarried woman finds that she's pregnant. Abortion is not available. Happily, there are maternity homes in which she can hide her shame, and, even more happily, there are eager, childless couples who want nothing more passionately than to give a healthy baby a home. Relieved of the unwanted burden, the young woman can get on with her life, and have children of her own, in marriage.

That's my version of the story. "Relieved of the burden" is how I put the part about "abandoning her child." I was always very sympathetic to my mother's plight. I knew that she must have gone through a terrible ordeal. But I thought that she'd have gotten over it, and I didn't want to remind her of it.

Well, the Story was a crock, the precipitate of an unholy admixture of bad science (in the form of social workers trying to apply Freudian ideas to the general public) and anti-Bolshevik xenophobia (which made all forms of sexual "deviance," from unmarried pregnancy to childless marriage, disapprobable). It was a convenient fiction that relieved adoptive parents of any guilt for kidnapping other people's children - interposing agencies worked the transfers, and told reams of lies and white lies in the doing. (Ann Fessler's mother was told that her baby's adoptive father owned a factory. He worked in one.) Adoptive parents - the paying customers - were the beneficiaries of the Story. But the other two parties to the adoptive triad were not so well served. Children (not me, but many adoptees) felt that because they'd been abandoned, they weren't any good, and, as Ann Fessler's oral history makes abundantly clear, their mothers had their noses ground in unworthiness. There is not one single report in The Girls Who Went Away of a mother who "moved on" and "got over it." There may have been mothers who did, but I think I'd classify them as seriously disturbed women.

Hello, people: you do not sign away your child at birth and get over it! You don't! You don't! You don't! You have to be virtually coerced (as woman after woman attests) by aggressive authority figures and extortionate claims and parents who have been turned, by a craven fear of non-conformity, into the sort of people who gave up Anne Frank. You have to be bullied by a judge into signing on the dotted line. And then you get to hate yourself for the rest of your life.

Think about it. Think about how self-serving the Story is. Then think about any new mother you've ever known. Do I have to ask you? I don't think so.

My reason for overriding the three reasons is my belief that Ann Fessler's interviewees have something to tell me: only when they reunited with their adopted children did the women begin to heal. It wasn't always, or even usually, easy. But it was the indispensable event. It may turn out that my mother, should she still be alive and available for contact, will not be best pleased to meet me. She may "abandon" me a second time. That's fine. But I don't feel that the choice is mine to make. I feel, rather, that I have a moral obligation to put myself forward. To let her know, as I said the other day, that I'm okay. To put an end to her grieving, if there has been any grieving. If she wants to, she can even count my toes.

July 05, 2006

After the Holiday


I don't believe it! In the middle of a thunderstorm, the knuckleheads down the street are operating a crane? Has the existence of the Internet somehow made this an okay thing to be doing?

It's a lot cooler outside than it has been. Kathleen is taking the day off, and all I can think of is (besides electrocuted crane operators and pulped passers-by) is the deep pleasure of the old song about the rain pouring and the old man snoring. "Won't come back till the morning."

We had a lovely gathering, last night, of old friends and new. We watched the fireworks from the roof - still possible although somewhat thwarted by the construction of a tall building somewhere in the vicinity of New York Hospital. There were lots of smiley faces at the start, but quite a number of innovative pyrotechnics at the finish, including some strange green and red formations that lingered in the sky for twenty or thirty seconds (forever in fireworks). They began to look like chromosomes. How do they do that?

I have an infusion today - the perfect opportunity to finish The Girls Who Went Away. But perhaps the Infusion Unit is not the ideal venue. The overwhelming majority of infusees are women - I can count on one hand the number of times another man has been getting treatment. Some of them may well be (a) birth mothers or (b) adoptive mothers. I wouldn't want to upset anybody.

Book Review

In which we have a look at this week's New York Times Book Review.

Fiction & Poetry

Ishmael Reed's New and Collected Poems, 1964-2006 is the subject of Joel Brouwer's review. Given a full page, Mr Brouwer does a nice job of framing a context for the contentious poet, and quotes enough verse to give a sense of what fuller exposure to Mr Reed's work might be like. Of a passage from "I Am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra," Mr Brouwer writes,

Such a crazy quilt of references can be frustrating - my literature students frequently declare themselves equally bewitched by the poem's sounds and bewildered by its content - but it is an accurate reflection of our multifarious planet, where conflicts between nations, cultures, religions, classes, races and genders are not likely ever to be fully reconciled, but can at least be made less deadly through tolerance of difference. Reed's best poems conjure up a vertiginous, multiplicious, irresolvable and thrilling world. It looks a lot like ours.

Five novels are reviewed this week, and I must say that the reviews are a dispiriting lot. Erica Wagner tries hard to say just why she doesn't like Andrea Lee's Lost Heart in Italy, but conveys nothing more than her own irritability.

But I kept wondering why I was bothering with these people, and why the author kept feeling the need to drive her points, such as they are, home so firmly.


It's possible for a novel - and unfortunately, this is just such a novel - to be both too particular, and not particular enough.

As the literary editor of the Times of London, Ms Wagner ought to have declined this assignment, the tone of which I'm sure that she had settled within the first ten pages of Ms Lee's novel. Terrence Rafferty does even less justice to By A Slow River, by Philippe Claudel (translated by Hoyt Rogers). Everything that he doesn't like about the novel enough to quote it looks to me like the sort of thing that, while it sounds gaseous in English, tends to come naturally to French discourse.

Claudel's novel occupies a kind of misty no man's land between serious fiction and pulp.

Not a helpful remark at all. Sven Birkerts likes Ivan Doig's The Whistling Season, but - as is often the case with this reviewer - he gets lost in his own preoccupations with irony and candor, and with the supposed simplicity of life in the high plains. A review that praises an author's language ought to boast an extensive example, and I sincerely hope that there is more to Mr Doig's story than Mr Birkerts indicates.

The two novels that get more sympathetic reviews are English, August: An Indian Story, by Upamanyu Chatterjee, and Peter Robinson's Piece of My Heart. The latter, reviewed by Jim Windolf, is the latest in a series of police procedurals that feature Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks, "a policeman with a melancholic streak working under the North Yorkshire Major Crimes unit." It looks to me as though this full-page review is designed to push Mr Robinson into the ranks of Ian Rankin and Barbara Vine as a writer of Major League Entertainment. Mr Windolf writes more about the series than about the novel at hand, although he does say that it "succeeds" as a mystery, and, for all that he has to say about the character of DCI Banks, a was unable to develop a corresponding picture. Having pointed out that English, August was first published almost twenty years ago, to great acclaim, in India, Akash Kapur jumps into the problematics of identity faced by any Indian writer writing in English while continuing to live in India. Both reviews, then, while favorable, are essentially distracted from the task at hand. 


As an admirer of Cynthia Ozick, I was not best pleased by Walter Kirn's making sly fun of her, in his review of her latest collection, The Din in the Head: Essays, but I had to admire the skill with which he takes her high regard for standards and canons, and her belief in the power of the novel, and makes them look faintly absurd, or at least very old-fashioned.

The image of the novelist as a species of intellectual royalty, administering vast realms of mental space with absolute, divine authority while resisting the claims of social relevance and popular amusement, reappears in a number of the essays, and always as something to be revered and mourned rather than archaeologically inspected. ... The novelist-emperor calls forth his subjects from his own mysterious depths, like Jove; he doesn't depend on found materials. His inventions don't reflect life, they create it, and the culture's growing doubt that such a feat is possible are a tragic measure of its diminishment.

In short: not a good review (shame, Mr Kirn!) but a lot of fun. Ana Marie Cox, leveling much the same charge (she's old-fashioned) against Katha Pollitt's Virginity or Death!: And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time, is amusing in a wry, self-aware manner.

But the first thing I thought when I read Pollitt deride the false consciousness of pick-ectomy patients (okay, maybe not the first) was "Does it really work?" While I hesitate to consider myself representative (and no, I would never actually do it), the ability to hold a predilection for stilettos and support for abortion rights in one's head simultaneously seems suggestive of today's compromised, complicated feminist mind-set.

Stephen Prothero is impatient with J C Hallman's The Devil Is a Gentleman: Exploring America's Religious Fringe. He faults the author for doing what he set out to do, and not doing more, in the form of analysis.

Readers will learn that UFO believers are happy and that Satanists are actually quite nice - as a rule, Hallman is generous to his subjects - but they will learn nothing about how America's religious fringe is both sewn into and tugging against the garment of American Christianity.

As the chairman of the religion department at Boston University, Mr Prothero's complaint is unsurprising. But the editors of the Book Review ought to have sized up Mr Hallman's book as the travelogue that it seems to be, not the comparative study that Mr Prothero regrets. 

Norah Vincent's deeply unsympathetic review of Seminary Boy, by John Cornwell, is enough to make you wonder why the publisher went to the trouble to print it. Eloquent about the book's deficiencies, Ms Vincent finds only one or two attractions in Mr Cornwell's account of five years in a Roman Catholic seminary. Her insistence on the kind of book that Mr Cornwell ought to have written is almost startling.

Insight is the linchpin of a spiritual coming-of-age memoir like this. Keen, unflinching insight into abstruse matters of the soul, and this is especially true when we are talking of a journey as singular and strange, as vehemently insular, as Cornwell's. If the writer cannot give us that - if he cannot explain in sufficiently considered detail how he went from being an under-age East London thug, who took part in the gang-molestation of a girl and threw bricks at the windows of passing trains, to fervently declaring a vocation to the priesthood at 13 - then he is wasting words.

Perhaps Mr Cornwell felt that it was enough to set down the details of his "singular and strange" journey without cluttering them with interpretation. I'm not sure that I'd disagree.

Timesman Serge Schmemann believes that Geoffrey Hosking, author of Rulers and Victims: The Russians in the Soviet Union, ought to have ventured some prognostication about Russia's imperial future: will it have one? This despite the fact that Mr Hosking's book "builds a strong and authoritative argument that the Soviet Union was both Russian and anti-Russian." In other words, the book is not about Russia's imperial past.

David Thomson, the noted film metacritic, is so interested in the figure of Upton Sinclair that he cannot be bothered to discuss Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair, by Anthony Arthur, or Upton Sinclair and the Other American Century, by Kevin Mattson.

We have two new biographies on the table, beggingly lean and artfully digested, as if the publishers had told their authors: "Show some moderation. Pick out the high points. If we get a hundred kids to look at The Jungle, we'll have done honor by the old boy. How's your burger?" Both Anthony Arthur's and Kevin Mattson's books are reasonable in length and tempered in passion. Pushed to choose, I prefer Arthur's. But to feel the wonderful nut and enthusiast in Sinclair, the intrigued newcomer should read The Jungle or King Coal. Then realize that this author was a very good and ardent tennis player. Eight thousand words a day and three sets - with no tie breakers.

I doubt that Mr Arthur or Mr Mattson will be grateful for Mr Thomson's attention.

James Carroll's House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power gets a sympathetic review from Michael Tomasky. He takes the book for what it's meant to be: an argument about the moral consequences of armed intervention in other people's problems. The son of a general who was the first head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Mr Carroll grew up playing in the Pentagon occasionally, but his opposition to the war in Vietnam pitted him against his father. (It would appear that this book, like Constantine's Sword, is a mélange of the personal and the objective.) The Pentagon is the symbol as well as the fount of American belligerence (whenever the nation is at war), and Mr Carroll questions the morality of its foundations.

Learned, intelligent and thoroughly researched, House of War should be read and taken seriously by those who will disagree with its argument and who are too sure of the righteousness of their views. One can't help wishing at the same time that Carroll were a little less sure of the righteousness of his.

The most favorable review in this week's issue begins on the cover. Bruce Barcott writes glowingly of Cross Country: Fifteen Years and Ninety Thousand Miles on the Roads and Interstates of America with Lewis and Clark, a Lot of Bad Motels, a Moving Van, Emily Post, Jack Kerouac, My Wife, My Mother-in-Law, Two Kids, and Enough Coffee to Kill and Elephant, by Robert Sullivan. I had a hard time getting into the spirit of the review, because I don't share the reviewer's enthusiasm about Mr Sullivan's view of America:

The America that I see is an America that tells you to keep moving, to move on to something better, to get on the road and keep going, to stop only briefly to refuel your car and yourself but then to keep pushing toward the place that is closer to where you should be, or could be, if only you would keep going. American says move, move on, don't sit still ... In other words, America is the road.

A lot of Mr Barcott's review parallels the material covered in Cross Country, instead of judging Mr Sullivan's treatment of it, so aside from telling us that Mr Barcott likes the book, the review sheds little light on it. Which is too bad; I'd have liked the most favorable review of the week to tell me more about the book. And to have been about something other than depressing hours wasted in a car on America's largely featureless highways.

This leaves two books about strange characters and a volume devoted to leatherback turtles. David Quammen follows this week's prevailing trend by wishing that Carl Safina's Voyage of the Turtle: In Pursuit of the Earth's Last Dinosaur were a different, more rousing book.

I would like to be able to tell you that this is a riveting nature book for hardheaded, skeptical people of broad interest who, ordinarily, would never read a nature book. Instead I can merely assure you that it contains some potent facts and some very nice turtles.

Sharing the same page are Polly Morrice's largely favorable review of Stuart: A Life Backwards, by Alexander Masters, and Sarah Ferrell's bemused review of Helen Reddy's The Woman I Am: A Memoir. Miss Reddy, a former pop star, has taken up Reincarnation, and Ms Ferrell says that her chapter about how Richard III came back as the Duchess of Windsor is "not-to-be-missed." Ms Morrice does not tell us why the intelligent son of American writers would befriend a catastrophically damaged Englishman - muscular dystrophy was the least of Stuart Shorter's problems - but she expects that most readers "will appreciate Masters's moving portrait." Perhaps I should say something gratuitously negative about this book, because I'd be delighted to have Mr Masters ask me to read it and discover the error of my ways, as three authors have done since I began reviewing the Review.

According to John Thorn's Essay, "Take Me Into the Ballgame, "hardly any" of the countless books of "imaginative writing about baseball" have been good. He excepts Ring Lardner's You Know Me Al and Robert Coover's Universal Baseball Association, Inc, J Henry Waugh, Prop: these two novels, instead of deforming the game into a source of metaphors, really describe playing baseball. True, baseball in the Coover book is played indoors, at a table, with dice, by a single player - an insanely prescient forecast of today's computer games.

July 04, 2006

Independence Day

It is Independence Day in America, and I am declaring my independence from a school of thought to which I have loosely subscribed ever since I was told, at the age of seven, that the well-intentioned people whom I was brought up to regard as my parents had adopted me. I was - am - somebody else's baby. I'm reading Ann Fessler's amazing book, The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades before Roe v. Wade. It astonishes me that it has taken thirty years since the first rollers of second-wave feminism crashed on the patriarchy's shore for this book to appear. It's the story of the worst outrage perpetrated against American women in modern times. Period. Something around a million mothers were forced to be complicit in their babies' kidnapping, between World War II and 1973. The elegant system that Ms Fessler anatomizes assured that the young mothers were both the victims and the scapegoats - it's as if Eichmann were a Jew! Without exception, the women whose stories are highlighted in the book suffered a numbness after the "abandonment" of their babies, usually under duress, that would be relieved only by reunion, if and when it occurred. It occurs to me that trying to reconnect with my birth mother is simply not an option - it's the only thing to do. If what I was told is correct, she's 77 now - not unimaginably old. (Being good at math, I hit on the figure of 87 in the moment of impassioned decision.) It couldn't matter less whether I want to know her. There's an overwhelming likelihood that she wants to know me. She wants to know that I'm okay.

I didn't know. But I do now, and that changes everything.

July 03, 2006

South of Houston

When Strangers With Candy was over, on Friday afternoon, I called Ms NOLA at work, and we agreed to meet at the regular place, the Starbucks on the third floor of the Union Square branch of Barnes & Noble, in about an hour. This gave me plenty of time for a leisurely saunter up the Bowery and Fourth Avenue, with a visit to the St Mark's Book Shop at Cooper Square. The timing was perfect, because before I even made it to the escalator at Barnes & Noble, Ms NOLA appeared out of nowhere. She must have walked in just behind me. We decided to go to Republic for lunch. I had the tasty Sauteed Beef Noodle Salad, and it looked just like the photograph that you'll find, it you're interested, at the restaurant's frame set site.


The Empire State Building, seen from the Bowery.


Grace Church, seen from the rear, beyond its parish house.

Now the walking part of the afternoon began - with a subway ride. For the second time that day, I found myself climbing the station stairs at Bleecker Street.

Continue reading "South of Houston" at Portico.

July 02, 2006


Some cosmologists speak of multiple universes. I speak of two universes - musical universes. On the one hand, there is the universe of Berlioz. Then there is the universe of everything else, from Bach to the Bee Gees, from klezmer to koto. I mark the distinction not because I regard Berlioz as the greatest composer ever. That would contradict my point. Rather, Berlioz is the only composer that you can think of when you're listening to Berlioz, and when you're listening to anything else, the music of Berlioz seems impossible.

Listening to Berlioz, I am gripped by the passionate conviction that only Berlioz understands what music is for. Only he opens the lid all the way; he alone knows how to flood the scene with exciting brilliance. Sometimes the tone is angelically serene. Sometimes the laboratory seems about to explode. Sometimes, the laboratory has exploded. And sometimes Berlioz is just plain cheesy. Certainly not even Mozart conserved more of his noise-loving inner little boy.

Perhaps that's what it is: Berlioz gives voice to the infantile, to the raw disorderly and contradictory cravings of infants and toddlers. Like so many small children, Berlioz doesn't seem to know his own strength. He measures it unerringly, of course; that's why its impact is so focused. I'm listening, as I write this, to the "Choeur des ombres" from Lélio, and noting the offbeat drum thuds that only Berlioz would have written in - not to mention the tam-tam. The music is more generally known in its La Mort de Cléopatre version, but why listen to a sole soprano sing it when you can have an entire chorus singing it in unison? More is better, better, better!

And what wild little boy doesn't want to run off and join the pirates? Lélio is a recycling of miscellaneous compositions - a chanson for tenor and piano, another for tenor and orchestra, several choruses, and an orchestral piece - strung together by narration. The narrator is Berlioz himself, come back to life after the hanging at the end of the Symphonie Fantastique. (Lélio is a pendant to that far more famous work, with which it shares an opus number.) The wonderfully tacky "Chanson des brigands" is preceded by this bit of tantrum (which must be difficult for a sane actor to do well):

J'ai envie d'aller dans le Royaume de Naples ou dans la Calabrie demander au service à quelque chef de Bravi, dussé-je n'être que simple brigand... J'y ai souvent songé. Oui! de poétiques superstitions, une madone protectrice, de riches dépouilles amoncelées dans les cavernes, des femmes échevelées, palpitantes d'effroi, un concert de cris d'horreur accompagné d'un orchestre de carabines, sabres et poignards, du sang et du lacryma-christi, un lit de lave bercé par les tremblements de terre, allons donc, voilà la vie!

No adult on earth dreams of sleeping on a bed of lava rocked by earthquakes. It is a pleasure that only a mind long on fevered imagination and short on actual experience could envision. You have to leave the adult universe to enter the into spirit of the proceedings. The succeeding number is the chanson for tenor and orchestra, a "Chant de bonheur."

The final piece is an epithalamium to Miranda, of The Tempest, a " Choeur d'esprits de l'air." The text is in Italian, of all things. There's a sparkling piano obbligato, Miranda is told that she will know love, and Caliban is warned about Ariel's anger. The music is preceded by instructions to the performers! "Que SHAKESPEARE me protège!" It's as though a three year-old had been given a college education. The nakedness of Berlioz's fantasies, which he realizes perfectly in music, ought to be embarrassing, but if you are truly in the universe of Berlioz, it is all quite simply comme il faut. The music winds up to a tremendous swirl, drums bursting and trumpets blazing and the world generally seeming to come to an end in an ecstatic tarantella - in time for dinner.

I don't rule out the possibility of travel between the universes. There are several luminous passages in Verdi's operas that suggest that the Italian composer made the trip.

July 01, 2006

Strangers With Candy

So much for moving the "Friday Movie" feature to Monday. On Monday, I took a bus down Second Avenue to see The Great New Wonderful, but I was told that the air-conditioning wasn't working, so that was out. I walked a few blocks over to the theatre next to our storage unit, but none of its seven theatres was showing anything that I either hadn't seen or had no intention of seeing. A complete bust.

Because Kathleen really really wants to me to see The Devil Wears Prada for the first time with her, and because there was an eleven o'clock showing at the Sunshine Theatre, on Houston Street, I popped left the house at ten yesterday morning and went downtown to see Strangers With Candy. I had a bag to drop off at a thrift shop nearby, and I wanted to give myself plenty of time. But the trains were brilliant and I turned onto Houston Street from Lafayette at 10:30. The weather was sunny but gusty - an unusual combination that always heralds a storm. (It's amazing how long Ms NOLA, with whom I met up after the movie, and I would be able to stay dry.) There was no sign of rain, however, when I walked into the Sunshine and tried to buy a ticket. The place was just opening up, and I was asked to take a seat on a bench. In the end, I got into the theatre after the previews had started.

Strangers With Candy - ! That's about the best I can do. The only film with which it can be remotely compared is National Lampoon's Animal House, but Amy Sedaris is in far more of Strangers than Belushi was in the earlier gross-out. And she is every bit as gross. Gross, gross, gross! Did I mention her toenails? Did I mention what happens when, chided for talking with food in her mouth, she replies that there is no food in her mouth? Did I mention her Balinese dancing? No, of course I didn't!

Strangers With Candy is loaded with parts - great parts - but it refuses to add up to a sum. It does this so deliberately, so competently, that you forgive it. You just roll with the gags, which are constant. The casting alone is a riot: Ian Holm, Deborah Rush, Dan Hedaya, Sarah Jessica Parker, Allison Janney, and Philip Seymour Hoffman all have terrific bit parts in this high school romp. Matthew Broderick, no less, is the "bad guy," and he finds startling new things to do. Greg Hollimon, a new face to me but someone who I gather has been busy on Comedy Central, was in every way the more established stars' equal. Maria Thayer managed to put enough intelligence into her part to suggest that she's capable of doing quite well in less fluffy surroundings, but she stuck out for me principally because she reminded me so forcibly of the pale girl standing behind the young fop in George de la Tour's La Sorcière. I could go on and on, so I won't. Strangers With Candy isn't for everybody, but anybody with a taste for parody will enjoy this quick-witted send-up that knows no shame.